, November 15th, 2012 08:36
Gloriously elemental, overblown and blessed with the ability to ride a groove the size of the Pacific with a deft primal touch, Soundgarden have always been a band out of step with their eternal 'grunge' tag. Rather, their (now fully canonised) trio of 90's albums – Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside – relied on clefty Sabbathian bludgeon, kaleidoscopic Zeppelinite histrionics and an eerie Beatlesesqe melodic bent – a winning combination that remains as stoically enticing now as two decades ago.
Of course, punk appeared too (on their earlier 80s material, particularly) – but to a far lesser degree than many of their Seattle compadres. In essence, Soundgarden have always been in the business of soaring big room rock music – albeit heavily spiked with wild meter and dark romance. That they seldom spiralled into overtly flashy or self-indulgent territory was a miraculous feat, given the scope of their sound coupled with truly virtuoso musical abilities.
Indeed, the naysayer could be forgiven for thinking that if any band were destined for a wayward and meandering double, then surely it was Soundgarden – but no. Thankfully, this comeback – (they've been away since 1997 - Audioslave, Bond themes etc) – is a snarling, propulsive, alpha rock monster.
Single 'Been Away Too Long' is a stuttering rangy builder, Cornell's octave shattering belt showing no signs of age whatsoever as he intones "no one knows me, no one saves me, no one loves or hates me". And, let's not jest, Chris Cornell is in possession of one of the finest pure rock voices: a magnificent leather bray that comes from the top of Thor's staircase, a gleeful old school boom from the Dio and Plant school of hammy abandon.
But, dazzling vocal theatrics aside, it is the lustrous gumption of the rhythm section that propels this record. Ben Sheppard – a severely underrated bassist, if ever there was – and Matt Cameron's supreme command of odd, jazz-infused time signature holds sway over much of the material here. Rather like Helmet or Tool, the shuffling grooves have a life of their own and move solid rock songs into new and unexpected directions. 'Non State Actor' is a case in point – swirling, cyclical and seemingly gasping for air four steps behind the beat. 'Blood On The Valley Floor' remains perilously close to falling apart all together, until Cameron digs it in.
However, it is the sense of self imposed restraint that impresses most. It takes real skill to hold this much back – I often get a mental image of Charlie Watts when listening to Soundgarden for this very reason. They don't habitually go full throttle, but when it does happen, it's something of a one-inch punch. 'Attrition', for example; sheer greasy rock n roll, urgent and nasty.
'A Thousand Days Before' takes it all down a notch, introducing an overtly psychedelic melody, pure late period Beatles in execution. Kim Thayill's idiosyncratic guitar is heard in particularly fine form here, a hypnotic and flighty subterfuge to the gumbo thick whomp of the bottom end. Elsewhere, 'Worse Dreams' offers a jaunty mantra, sporadic and strangely funky. Album closer 'Rowing' is the undoubted highlight of this set though – a haunting blues boasting a call and response vocal, surely destined to become a live staple.
So, this is classic, unabated Soundgarden. Never ones for an obvious hook (and the very epitome of an album band), the power remains in the groove throughout 'King Animal'. Other than 'Been Away Too Long' there are no obvious singles here. Rather, each track takes on a propulsive and seductive weight far greater than the sum of its parts when listened to in succession. An enveloping, heavyweight and dynamic record that will delight the diehards, and no doubt continue to reveal myriad rhythmical intricacies in the months ahead. King Animal, indeed...