Thursday, November 8, 2012
Soundgarden - King Animal
Soundgarden aren't the only band from the late 80's / early 90's Seattle era on the comeback trail, but personally, I think they had the biggest obstacles in their way.
There's a real art to finishing on a high, you see, and Soundgarden managed this when they split in 1997. They pulled the plug on the back of Down on the Upside, a good album which followed two legendary albums in Badmotorfinger and the exceptional Superunknown. Things were starting to get messy internally, so they parted ways before creative or musical decay set in, before it could get to the stage where they were just phoning it in. I've always thought they were posthumously accorded a certain reverence as a band for this exact reason - they called it quits at the right time and left a great legacy.
The other thing making it tough for them is that their contemporaries have set the bar quite high. Pearl Jam have put out consistently good albums - and have garnered a deserved reputation as one of the greatest live acts in the world (not to mention that they change the setlist up practically every night). Alice in Chains put out a great comeback album, Black Gives Way to Blue, and proved that despite losing legendary singer Layne Staley, they were still a major musical force to be reckoned with. Nirvana, well, they continue to maintain demi-god status but I'd maintain that's got more to do with Kurt Cobain's face being on a lot of t-shirts and Dave Grohl's subsequent antics than it does with Nirvana's actual recorded output (better I don't get started on that).
And now here we are, in 2012, with a new Soundgarden album. Frankly, for a while, there were pretty long odds on that ever happening. Singer Chris Cornell spent time with Audioslave, and seemed pretty happy doing his own thing and putting out solo material (I'm going to resist the opportunity for another potshot at Scream). Drummer Matt Cameron linked up with Pearl Jam, and proved to be a great - and permanent - solution to their revolving door line-up of drummers. Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd did various things that no-one really paid that much attention to (which is a shame, really, because they are both excellent musicians).
Putting all this together, I think Soundgarden had more to lose than to gain with this album - collectively, at least. Hearing their first 'post-reunion' track Live to Rise, from The Avengers, only fuelled that view - it's pretty by-the-numbers for a band who generally excelled at anything but that.
Nor was I any more hopeful after opening track Been Away Too Long. It's a decent enough rock song, I guess I just didn't expect a reasonably straightforward straight with a reasonably obvious message.
But oh my does it ever improve from there. Second track Non State Actor is an absolute gem, with a glorious opening groove from the band that shifts and segues through the verse, before hitting a great chorus, simultaneously psychedelic and melodic. It's a song that steadily unfolds, that demands your attention, and never settles for second place - there are subtle twists and turns throughout. When I listen to this track, it feels like the band started with a good idea, and then threw absolutely everything they could at it to make it even better (whilst individually performing at the top of their respective games). It's so good, that it convinced me the reunion was worth it just for this one song.
It's followed up with By Crooked Steps, an aptly-titled continuation of Soundgarden's Wacky Adventures in Weird Time Signatures. Not content with accidentally writing songs in odd meters (example: Spoonman), this time they've excelled themselves by pairing a fairly straight riff (seemingly 4/4) with a series of weird and wandering time signatures. But, music geekery aside, it's a interesting, catchy track.
There's a couple of head-nods to major influences on the next couple of tracks - the eastern-tinged A Thousand Days Before recalls classic Led Zeppelin (partly thanks to Kim Thayil sounding particularly mystic), whilst the doomy, sludgy Blood on the Valley Floor has a distinct Black Sabbath flavour to it.
Bones of Birds and Taree are both steady, mid-tempo numbers. The former is a big highlight - intricately detailed with layered guitars and vocals, whilst maintaining an effortless catchiness to it as well.
Attrition is essentially Kickstand 2012 - a fairly straight-ahead punkish track, although it's a welcome change of tempo ahead of the winding acoustic groover Black Saturday - which will make you wonder why Messrs. Cornell and Thayil never pulled out the acoustic guitars a little more frequently on Soundgarden records (I suspect Cornell's Songbook tour was a formative influence on this track).
Cornell is also a clear influence on Halfway There, which almost sounds like it might have fit better on a Cornell solo record. It's more of a pop song - not a bad one - but it almost sounds a little too, well, happy, to be Soundgarden.
Worse Dreams and Eyelid's Mouth are both classic Soundgarden - heavy, thick but infernally catchy - and the album finishes with the experimental, sparse, Rowing.
All told, King Animal has more than enough moments of sheer excellence from Soundgarden - both collectively and individually - to hold its head high amongst their impressive back catalogue. It'd be easy to criticise the inclusion of Been Away Too Long and Halfway There as obvious singles, but I'm happy to overlook that when they're sitting alongside tracks where the band takes big risks (with big payoffs), like Black Saturday, Non State Actor and By Crooked Steps.
History is littered with bands who have cast a poor light on their legacy by either flogging a dead horse, or making an ill-advised 'comeback'. King Animal is neither of these things, and a very clear reminder that Soundgarden are as unique - and relevant - today as they were 15 years ago. Welcome back, guys.
edit: A mate (cheers John!) has just drawn my attention to this recent live performance of By Crooked Steps. Well worth a watch. I never really spent a lot of time talking about Matt Cameron in my original review, but this reminded me of his ability. He always seems to play with a great feel for the song - even when it's in some weird-ass time signature - but never overly flashy.