Grunge behemoth Soundgarden is back with a reunion album, King Animal. It’s a very so-so affair, but it reinforces the notion that every record has its own story, even the average ones. Grunge detractors will obviously want to avoid, but unabashed fans of the band might find it a cup half full.
Using Nirvana as the main window to a retroactive assessment of the Grunge phenomenon is largely a mistake. While their mainstream breakthrough initially bugged a lot of persnickety underground heads as either a sellout or the ascendency of a band that was undeserving, most of those fussers eventually came around and made some sort of peace with Nirvana’s success. And that achievement obviously brought a ton of record sales, but it also managed critical plaudits that if given too much emphasis, can considerably distort the reality of what the mostly-Seattle based scene was all about.
For in its early formative years, Grunge wasn’t looked upon in a particularly positive light. One of the last geographically based genres, its union of hard rock form moves with punk energy and trappings was considered by many to be an incestuous and regressive impulse. The varying levels of opprobrium initially had nothing to do with a breach into the realms of wider popularity and everything to do with a belief that tapping the strains of Blue Cheer/MC5/Stooges was a decidedly retrograde impulse, and that coming to terms with and utilizing the more suspect examples of Zep/Sab/etc was a dangerous step backwards.
This was an evaluation that dogged the spurt of the scene’s releases as documented largely through Sub Pop. If the earlier examples of Grunge style, specifically Melvins and Green River, had been accepted as somewhat oddball outliers in the underground scheme of things, by the time of the genre defining Sub Pop 200 compilation the opinion of many in regard to Mudhoney, Tad, and indeed Nirvana was at best a measured, moderate praise. Bands like Blood Circus and the unfortunately-named Cat Butt were far less fortunate, inspiring derision and jokes.
To a lesser extent so did Soundgarden. But they seemed not to notice, trucking right along while few critical hosannas came their way. Instead they connected with a growing number of listeners that had no axe to grind regarding the basic recipe of Grunge, for a bevy of folks all over the map had sprang forth from a love of Zeppelin and Sabbath to a discovery of Black Flag and saw no real disharmony between the two. And while Soundgarden’s popularity widely increased after Nirvana’s explosion, their musical growth felt like a natural progression, especially when compared to the ‘90s work of The Screaming Trees, whose early psych-oriented stuff was considerably different (and much better) than their later radio-suitable material.
After much consideration, the lack of stylistic speed-bumps in Soundgarden’s development earns them this writer’s distinction of being the band most representative of what Grunge was all about (though don’t mistake this with the title of greatest band in the style). The commendations Nirvana received and the aspirations of the band greatly transcended the genre’s proudly modest goals of rocking out for the sake of it. Pearl Jam were initially a nearly angst-free version of Cobain and Co that shape-sifted into a brawny, workmanlike act featuring a leader/spokesman that essentially combined a Springsteen-like sense of importance with musical execution somewhat reminiscent of Neil Young.
Alice in Chains were…well, they were Alice in Chains. Some will stump for Melvins, but their wildly experimental streak took them far afield from the aims of Grunge. The closest contender in my estimation is Mudhoney, but their punkish modesty of scale, the very thing that made them so often great, also limits them somewhat, for the Grunge form was sorta destined to reach an audience that would fill larger halls, and yes, eventually stadiums.
I can’t recall ever hearing someone gripe that Soundgarden were great early but totally sucked later. Yes, I’m sure it’s been said. If I did hear that complaint my admittedly kneejerk reaction would be that the statement was really about the issue of popularity. And that’s cool. But Soundgarden’s output isn’t the same as Sonic Youth’s, for one example, where listeners can hold deep appreciation for Bad Moon Rising and a legitimate ambivalence or even dislike toward an album like Dirty. People mostly either love, like, feel indifference over, or possess some level of aversion for Soundgarden as a whole.
In this sense they’re like one of their models, Led Zeppelin. Sure, some folks might dig the Sup Pop EPs and ignore Soundgarden’s later output, but that’s really not unlike those that dearly love Zeppelin II but care hardly at all about Presence. And lots of listeners pump “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” on their personal listening devices while having no idea what a full Soundgarden album sounds like, but that’s basically analogous to those who know “Stairway to Heaven” and “D’yer Mak’er” inside and out but have little or no knowledge of a Zep LP in its entirety. But perhaps in these considerations I’m overlooking the intense devotion of some for Hiro Yamamoto, and if so I apologize, both to him and to them.
So, if very much in the mode of Zeppelin, it’s ultimately no surprise that Soundgarden have commenced a reunion. It’s what bands like this do. And if, as an obscurantist for most of life, I’ve generally held an accepting if largely casual relationship to Grunge, the appearance of King Animal fills me not with dread but with the understanding that its arrival is natural (if not inevitable), and should be met on its own terms. And those terms sorta dictate that their return would pick up where the commercial highs of their ‘90s heyday left off and not giving overt emphasis to Screaming Life, Fopp or even Ultramega OK.
However, the title of that 1988 SST Records release does provide an accurate capsule assessment of King Animal’s overall quality. None of its thirteen tracks sink to a level that can really be described as bad, and while the disc starts out strong and peaks early with third cut “By Crooked Steps,” its contents become burdened with a sense of okayness. It’s likely to prove satisfactory or possibly better to those that loved later Soundgarden (and by extension folks with a palpable thirst for new variations upon the mid/late-‘90s Grunge template), but the response of others will very possibly be the shrugging of shoulders.
“Been Away Too Long” opens the record with a lean and aggressive heaviness that nods just a little bit toward the rhythmic elasticity of Helmet, with Cornell exhibiting the same soul-inflected bark and wail that for many was a recurring point of contention in Soundgarden’s prior output, a situation not unlike how some picked bones over Robert Plant letting it all hang out way back when. Cornell though, at least from the locus of Soundgarden proper, was less prone to occasional vocal excess and lapses of taste; he was just totally unashamed to be a frontman, and so it continues with King Animal.
“Non-State Actor” also moves well and establishes the band’s smart choice to employ relatively modest, punchy production over the sort of studio slickness that was certainly at their disposal. The band is pumped up and Cornell really lets it loose; it seems that he and everyone involved are motivated by more than just a lofty paycheck. And on first listen “By Crooked Steps” gave an impression that King Animal might truly exceed expectations and make a legitimate case for the arrival of a high-profile Grunge reunion album as something more than just another expression of the aging big-time rock band ritual of getting back together and hoping to reignite the fire.
“A Thousand Days Before” doesn’t really kill that buzz, but it’s also where a certain amount of predictability starts to set in. As the song progresses I can close my eyes and envision a throng of dusty outdoor-festival goers hoisting a crowd-surfer or two over their bobbing heads, and that was probably the intention. But in this case shooting for past glories brings with it the aura of retread, a problem that transcends Soundgarden and plagues reunion records in general. Again, this never sinks into the realms of the awful, but the issue of premeditation accumulates other negative factors like a magnet.
For instance, the stomp of “Blood on the Valley Floor” never works up to a boil, a problem that can often result when you engage with riffs a big as small mountains. When the Melvins (or the underrated early Tad records) did that, due to density and aggression what resulted reliably felt like a string of massive karate feet landing blows to the body and occasionally even to the face.
“Blood on the Valley Floor” doesn’t though. It’s just a touch awkward. Unfortunately, that’s all it takes. “Bones of Birds” follows and is King Animal’s first major play for the sound that tore up the heavier end of ‘90s commercial rock radio, but it lacks the invention of the band’s better ‘90s hits. Instead it just sounds over-familiar and a little bit bland. And “Teree” continues the progression toward Hitsville, maybe working from the perspective that if the first one doesn’t stick (it didn’t) than try again (it doesn’t either, but at least it does hold some good guitar from Kim Thayil).
“Attrition” thankfully kicks the tempo back up, but it’s just a chugger, lacking the boldness of the first three cuts. “Black Saturday” is the first of a pair of acoustic based numbers, a move that reinforces Soundgarden’s continued allegiance to the Zep model. But it’s a gesture that’s basically been run into the ground, just another display of loud guys getting quiet. But it’s somewhat salvaged by energy, an infusion of electricity, and the feeling that it’s just a little bit more than a regurgitation of mere formula. To swipe and adjust an old Ornette Coleman album title, this is their music; the chips are gonna fall where they will.
“Halfway There” is nearly all the way a pop tune, strummy and upbeat, and as such it’s fairly likeable twist. And with the solid chunkiness of the next track “Worse Dreams,” King Animal begins its wind-down. Any hopes for a torrid ending are dashed though, for neither penultimate track “Eyelid’s Mouth” nor the unusual closing choice “Rowing” work up much more than middling steam. Which is I guess appropriate for what’s a very middling record. But it’s also an admirable one, primarily because the band never becomes embarrassing, even at their weakest moments. Saying it could’ve been a whole lot worse might not seem like much of a compliment, but given the past history of this sort of thing it almost feels like high praise.
GRADED ON A CURVE: