Soundgarden's sixth studio album, King Animal, is out this week, 16 years after their last record, Down on the Upside. The band spent the vast majority of that time broken up, but have been kicking around the '90s nostalgia reunion circuit for the past two years, mainly playing hits from their classic records Badmotorfinger and Superunknown.
King Animal sounds so much like what you'd expect from Soundgarden that it's actually vaguely disappointing for its total lack of musical curveballs. Down on the Upside — and to a lesser extent, Superunknown — was the result of the band getting bored with their own formula and pulling in other musical influences in ways that opened up their sound. This album is the opposite. These four musicians have been off doing other things for so long that they're clearly eager to reconnect with the sludgy, proggy core of their early '90s music. And, you know, fair enough. Whoever is going to be interested in hearing a new Soundgarden album in 2012 is going to be on the same wavelength.
King Animal sounds like a band preserved in amber. If there's even a trace of a musical influence from after 1997 on the album, it's imperceptible. Maybe singer Chris Cornell learned his lesson from his widely mocked solo collaboration with Timbaland, perhaps they were afraid to tarnish their music with any artistic moves that would seem trendy or desperate. In any case, the record feels entirely anachronistic and flagrantly unfashionable, even in the context of '90s revivalism. Grunge aesthetics have lived on, but the essential elements of Soundgarden — Cornell's wailing rock god voice, Kim Thayil's ornate guitar riffs, and the rhythm section's oddball time signatures — are all but nonexistent in contemporary pop. (Muse may be the only exception.) They spent the late '80s and much of the '90s reinventing '70s metal, but no one has taken the time to update what they were doing. King Animal can be thrilling, but it's essentially an aesthetic dead end.
The songwriting credits on King Animal vary, but it's not much of a coincidence that the cuts cowritten by Thayil are the most impressive and distinctive. He's been on the margins of the rock game since the band first dissolved, and aside from some work as a sideman, this is his first major project since Down on the Upside. Unlike Cornell, who has been consistently releasing music on his own and with Audioslave through the late '90s, and Matt Cameron, who has been a full-time member of Pearl Jam longer than he was ever in Soundgarden, Thayil has had a long time to develop new riffs. His contributions are uniformly excellent, and his parts elevate so-so compositions by his bandmates. He shines brightest on "By Crooked Steps," a song that emphasizes the band's signature blend of unhinged fury and mechanical precision.
Listening to Soundgarden in 2012 can feel like a time warp, but not in a quaint sort of way. Their aesthetic has aged very well but is entirely out of step with pretty much all musical trends, even in metal. (Faux grungsters typically ape the less technically challenging likes of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.) King Animal, perhaps accidentally, confronts the listener with a stark reminder of how values about virtuosity in rock music have changed drastically over the past 20 years, to the point that the idea of "chops" does not factor into most contemporary rock fandom outside of technically minded subgenres of metal, or the more formally inclined artists of indie, like St. Vincent or Grizzly Bear. These guys may be associated with grunge, but they're truly representatives of an era in which fans were more invested in the idea of guitarists and drummers having superhuman, hyperathletic levels of prowess. For better or worse, Soundgarden are back to wave the flag for these values.