2012-12-05

Album Review: Soundgarden - King Animal

As far as I can tell, there appears to be three categories of Soundgarden fans.

The first category consists of people who are deeply familiar with whatever phrase we can use to denote the Seattle-area music scene of the late 80s and early 90s, and the broader national music scene that was influenced by it. Note my diplomatic use of language here. I cannot use words like "grunge" or "alternative rock" - or any particular phrase, really - because the scene was notoriously antagonistic to labels, probably for good reason. This group of fans enjoy Soundgarden, albeit slightly less than the lighter and more obscure Seattle legends. For them, the band reached its ultimate apogee with the Louder Than Love album, before going metal and going pop.

The second category consists of people significantly younger than the first category. I suppose this second group of people are closer to my own age. These fans really connected with Soundgarden's heaviness. This makes a lot of sense because the band happens to be fronted by one of the best metal vocalists of all time, despite his never actually sung legitimate heavy metal. For this group of fans, the pinnacle of the band was the Badmotorfinger album, clearly the band's heaviest album, and a landmark on many levels. It was the album that appeals to even the most discriminating metal head.

The third category of Soundgarden fans are people whose favorite band of all time is now, or was for a long time, Soundgarden. If I may say so, this group of fans understands Soundgarden's music much better than the previous two groups because, for them, Soundgarden's music is more than a heavy groove (category two) and transcends the context of the Seattle scene (category one). This third group of fans always understood the musical links between albums that appeared to the others as being radically different. While a category-two fan never really understood the appeal of a song like "Applebite," a category-three fan understands full well the conceptual continuity between that song and a song like "Little Joe." Not only do they understand it, it makes perfect sense to them. And while a category-one fan could never really see the appeal in radio-ready songs like "Zero Chance," category-three fans could trace pop sensibilities all the way back to the Bono-inspired vocals in "Hunted Down."

It would be tempting to suggest that the third category of fans are "the only true Soundgarden fans," but the band's broad appeal is precisely what helped them become the rock legends that they are.

Which brings me to 2012's incredible King Animal album. On its surface, this album offers a little something for everyone. For the Seattle scenester, this is perhaps the most authentic release from a scene alumnus in a decade or more. For fans of heavy music, Chris Cornell is once again at his screamiest, which should quell the fears of those with an inexplicable distaste for Cornell's largely folk-acoustic solo efforts.

...And for the die-hard fans, King Animal offers a full album of material that is both fully modern and fully at home with the band's full body of work.

The album kicks off with the radio release "I've Been Away Too Long." I can admit that the first time I heard it, it felt like a bit of a radical departure, a soiree into modern radio pop. Upon closer consideration, though, the song is compositionally a companion-piece to "Never Named," from the 1996 release Down on the Upside.

In fact, Down on the Upside may be the best comparator to King Animal as a whole. After diving head-first into the deep end of heaviness with Badmotorfinger and achieving mass commercial success in '94 with Superunknown, the band returned to self-producing their music when they wrote and recorded Down on the Upside. Their reasoning at the time was that they felt their previous two albums had been "over-produced." They were lacking the unbridled creative control they enjoyed on Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love.

So, while Down on the Upside felt out-of-place to fans who came to the band from Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, those who had been listening since the early albums understood its place in the broader Soundgarden context. Down on the Upside in many ways sounded like the "next in series" after Louder Than Love.

And, at least to my ears, King Animal sounds like the next in line after that. Gone is the over-the-top heaviness of Badmotorfinger. (And really, at Cornell's age, can we expect him to generate the same kind of operatic screams of his late-20s?) The heaviest the band gets is the Audioslave-tinged rocker "Non-State Actor," or perhaps the '91-esque "Blood on the Valley Floor."

Gone, too, is the sensible pop restraint of Superunknown. While the Cornell-penned pieces remain true to his personal oevre, which has always retained a strong dose of pop appeal (hence his storied pop career), the songs on King Animal involve all of Soundgarden's most progressive tricks. Complex time signatures abound, as do clever mandolin-inflected band orchestration.

In short, while some of the band's more specific sounds have been passed-over on the new album, what remains is pure, unadulterated Soundgarden. The songs are both new and timeless, which is that magical combination that always enabled the band to stand head-and-shoulders above the modern rock crowd.

At this point, having spent a still-too-short period of time with King Animal, my ears are gravitating most to the songs "A Thousand Days Before" and "Taree." Really, though, each and every track, from beginning to end, is a breath of fresh air in a musical market of ever-dimming creativity and originality, of ever homogenizing compositional practices, of ever-emulsifying production techniques.

King Animal is everything fans could hope for.