After Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, alternative rock, the supposed savior of the mainstream, took a shit and died. The loss of Nirvana seemingly created a domino effect; the remaining “big bands” of the genre either broke up, imploded or simply petered out, with the exception of Pearl Jam, who became alt rock’s answer to The Grateful Dead (as if we needed another one), while the lesser known bands went back underground. For me, those bands belong to a certain time and place; Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were a big part of the soundtrack to my teenage years. I didn’t discriminate between heavy metal and so-called grunge; it was all just a bunch of ugly, hairy dudes with guitars playing big, loud riffs.
Of the entire alternative rock movement, Soundgarden were arguably the most metal-sounding (whether they like it or not, along with Alice in Chains) and are one of the handful of bands from that era I revisit regularly; Badmotorfinger and Superunknown are classics in my house. So of course my interest was piqued by the quartet’s reactivation in 2010; at the very least it meant no more crappy Chris Cornell solo albums for a while and Kim Thayil could quit delivering pizzas or whatever the fuck it is he’s been doing since the band called it quits.
Two years later we have King Animal, the first new album from Soundgarden in a little over a decade-and-a-half and it’s… well… it’s OK. In spite of their previous album, 1996’s Down on the Upside, being a pretty mellow affair, I was for some reason expecting the stomping wooly mammoth riffs of “Outshined” and the souped-up super-rock of “Superunknown.” Let’s just get it out of the way now, if you go into King Animal expecting that near godlike level of badassery, you will be disappointed. Very. Fucking. Disappointed.
But that doesn’t mean the album is all bad… to hell with it, who am I trying to kid, for a band of Soundgarden’s caliber, being “just ok” is an egregious a crime as totally sucking. Considering the impeccable quality of their back catalogue, you’d think these guys could do no wrong. Sure, Cornell hasn’t exactly put out anything relevant or even remotely listenable in the intervening years, but Soundgarden, like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and the like, is about the combined might of its four members, not any one individual, right? Right?! That may very well be, but unfortunately King Animal reeks of a band that’s lost much of what made them special. Hey, I realize we can’t all be Lemmy, but King Animal sounds like the work of four toothless, neutered animals. Soundgarden’s rough, gnarly edges have been rounded off and smoothed out, the wailing, testosterone-fueled angst that characterized their early work is completely MIA. It’s Soundgarden Lite, to be listened to with your sweetheart in front of a crackling fireplace while wearing a fucking Cosby sweater.
To make matters worse is a complete lack of hooks. Granted, anyone who has followed Chris Cornell through his solo career and Audioslave should know that the man left hooks behind when Soundgarden broke up in 1997, but the fact that the other three members couldn’t draw even one memorable chorus out of him for King Animal is downright shocking, especially when one considers the absolute monster hooks of “Blow Up the Outside World,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” and the like. The songs here sound more like Cornell, Thayil, Cameron and Sheppard are covering throw-away Audioslave tracks than anything that even remotely resembles the Soundgarden of old.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews out there calling King Animal “a thunderous return” and whatnot; to those reviews I say bullshit. This is one of the most limp-wristed comeback albums I’ve ever heard; I’d call it dad-rock, but your dad probably listens to awesome shit like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and wouldn’t give this lukewarm drivel the time of day. All of this is to say that… oh, fuck it, just go blast Badmotorfinger and forget this album exists.