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Review: Soundgarden: "King Animal"

From the start, you can tell that this release is for real. Initially, I thought the SG reunion was a tad overblown, as "Telephantasm" didn't make sense. Such an album-orientated band trying to put together a greatest hits package to celebrate their LONG overdue reunion really confused me, and the resultant "Live on I-5", a document of the "Down on the Upside" tour made me scared that this was more about publishing rights than music.

King Animal has more than made up for the initial stumble, and should be considared the first "real" release of the reunited band. From the getgo, the packaging invokes this eerie sense of foreboding, respect, and serenity. Perhaps it is the zeitgeist of "Northern" pastiches as exemplified by Game of Thrones, but the cover just makes perfect sense.

The album starts off with the up-tempo "Away for too long", which serves both as a palate cleanser, and a reintroduction to the fire of the band. While coming off as a tad formulaic at times, with strained vocals, the energy of the rhythm section reminds you why those Chris Cornell solo albums hurt so much. The bridge of the song evokes memories of the best of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. It cannot be overstated how amazing the mid-tempo songs on "Animal" are.

The crunchier Thayil-led songs such as "Non-State Actor" and "Blood on the Valley Floor" remind me of past favorites such as "Room a thousand years wide" and "Never the machine forever" in feel if not overall intensity. This is an album made by 50 year olds, and while Cornells voice has not lost its power, it has lost its hunger. At times, this can make powerful songs such as "Non-state actor" feel somewhat nudered by a modern Cornell vocal, where one can imagine what a Badmotorfinger-era Cornell would have laid down.

Thayil's flair for odd time signatures and middle eastern riffs is in full swing, though we don't get the sonic wash of wah he is known for (think "Black hole sun"). I feel his playing feels more natural and well-integrated than it has since Superunknown. In fact, on the whole, I feel "King Animal" feels like the album "Down on the upside" failed to be. That album led to the bands breakup due to disagreements over songwriting leading to Cornell featuring almost exclusively on the album. The maturity shows though in the songwriting credits, and you can feel the joy the band is having together again, as even Mat ends up with a song on the album, the catchy "Eyelids Mouth".

The real star on "King Animal" is Ben Sheppherd. Allegedly all but homeless since the band broke up, and penniless, the album functions in many ways as a resurrection for the often under-appreciated bassist. His past tracks are almost always bizarre (Half, Head Down), yet possess amazing melodic sensibilities. Sheppherd scores big with "Taree", a song so moody and forlorn that you will introspect deeper and deeper into it's layers of odd time signatures, wah bursts, and brilliant bass/guitar/mandolin melodies, building to the climax of Cornell shouting the title over and over, effortlessly following the shifting beat. Without a doubt, Taree is an instant live set staple, and is worth buying the album for on its own. My only pet peeve is that the song has no "demo version" among any of the myriad special editions which include them.

The bad news is that this album can feel like a Cornell solo album at times, and disjointed. At its worst, King Animal sounds like the best solo tracks from Cornells career, in particular "Halfway There", which is bland 3 chord rock with uninspired vocals. I would not be suprised if it was a leftover from the re-write of "Scream". "Black Saturday" by contrast has some wonderful acoustic guitar, and feels fresh, while echoing the vibe of "Down on the upside".

The three demos available on the deluxe edition are WELL worth the extra couple of bucks. In particular, the demo versions of Worse Dreams and Crooked Steps offer insight into the intent of those two songs. Worse Dreams has an even stronger punkish attitude, and fills a role similar to that of great uptempo numbers from past albums like Let me drown, Superunknown, and Drawing Flies. Crooked Steps has a great percussive rhythym, and the demo track accentuates the best trebly tones I have heard from a Gibson SG in recent times.

I have a feeling some of these songs are from the individual members archives, or pieces together from riffs hoarded during their absence, and I don't have a problem with that. This is no Chinese Democracy, where music trends over the last 16 years ebb and flow throughout the sequencing. King Animal feels like a labor of love, that does exhibit a few missteps.

In short, the album is great. I highly recommend listening to the album in full, at least 3 times through. The album functions great as a contained work, and the sequencing in particular is pure Soundgarden, with shifts in tempo and tone taking the listener on a journey through the bands eclectic influences.

Highly recommended. Album of the year in my opinion.