A sprawling, highly subjective review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal”

“I’ve been away for too long …” — “Been Away Too Long”, opening song from King Animal
“Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing” — “Rowing”, closing song from King Animal

I suppose that first lyric could, alas, be applied to my postings on this fine blog. The past few weeks have been incredibly busy, with each day passed the cause for more muttering on my part about all of the brilliant, world-changing posts I should be foisting upon Progarchy readers. But since brilliant, world-changing posts are difficult to write, I’ll settle for writing a long and highly subjective review of the new Soundgarden album, King Animal, to be followed later this week with my “Favorite Music of 2012”, which I’ve now narrowed down to less than a hundred releases.

But before the review, a note of thanks. First, to the amazing Brad Birzer, the Sleepless and Tireless One, whose leadership and energy have really made Progarchy.com into the fabulous, progressive site that it is (and, yes, that’s the only time I’ll write “fabulous, progressive site” in my life). Thank you, Brad. You took the flimsy whim of my fleeting brain drizzle and turned into a lively, robust, and darned fun site. Hat’s off! And, secondly, to everyone who has contributed, thank you. I’ve tried to read every single post, and I’ve never been disappointed. The variety of perspectives, insights, tastes, eccentricities, and musical journeys has been fabulous to behold. Kudos!

One problem I have writing a review of King Animal is that I am tempted to turn it into something far more: a rambling, semi-coherent tribute to one of my favorite bands ever, late discovered (c. 2005) but perpetually played since; a sprawling rant about the word “grunge” and why Nirvana is (ahem) an incredibly overrated band and Pearl Jam leaves me completely cold (although I acknowledge that group’s abilities); a circling soliloquy about how Soundgarden—despite not being “prog”—has managed to do something that great prog bands do: create music that is soundgarden_kinganimalrestless, impossible to pin down either musically or lyrically, and incorporate a bazillion different influences and styles while producing a sound that is so distinctive that any rock fan worth their salt will shout, “Soundgarden!” after hearing just a handful of notes of any given song.

I’ve now listened to King Animal over three dozen times, and here, in short, is my take: it is not a perfect album, but it is a great album (a 9 out of 10, if I used such a system). And when you consider the thirteen-year long break (sixteen years between new albums), the fact that most reuniting bands play it safe and easy, and that the band members have always had quite different musical perspectives and approaches, it is a really great album. And, in fact, it has received solid to glowing reviews, as it should. I won’t bother pointing to this or that review, although there have been some good ones. However, if you want a great track-by-track description, here the place to start. And if you want to listen to the album online, here you go. Or, if you just have time for a single, defining moment from the album, be sure to here the song, “Bones of Birds”, which is perhaps the most stunning track among several stunning tracks.

Chris Cornell, the legendary voice and primary lyricist for the band, said recently, “The album is a story. It has a lot of twists and turns.” That jumped off the page (well, screen) at me because as I’ve listened to the album and reflected a bit on the lyrics, I keep coming back to (ready for it, Brad?) my favorite T. S. Eliot poem, “Ash Wednesday”. That poem is about spiritual struggle and ascent, the tension between the past and all of its failures and demons, and the future, which is filled with hope (ultimately eternal and God given) as well as fraught with peril. It refers to twists and turns, to the mystical ladder of ascent:

 At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

One of the reasons Soundgarden has fascinated me over the past few years is because so many of their songs explore and reflect the spiritual struggle and existential crisis so evident in the modern/post-modern world. And rather than being trite, didactic, preachy, posturing, or narcissistic, those songs have tended to be both very honest and very fragmentary, as if Cornell (primarily) is looking into a shattered glass and trying to put it back together, like a mosaic both broken and coveted. Think, for example, of their huge (and unexpected) hit, “Black Hole Sun”, from the masterwork, Superunknown (1994):

In my eyes,/Indisposed,
In disguise/As no one knows.
Hides the face,/Lies the snake,
And the sun  …
In my shoes,/A walking sleep,
And my youth/I pray to keep.
Heaven send Hell away,/No one
Sings like you anymore.

Like who, exactly? The brilliance of such lyrics is, again, the shard-like ambiguity and artful lack of full resolution. But there is no denying the longing, and how that longing is rooted in a quite Catholic perspective, even if it resists any and all systematic explication. Cornell was raised in a Catholic home, and while he had, by all accounts, a fairly miserable childhood (alcoholic father, etc.), he has repeatedly used Catholic motifs and more generally theistic language in his songs. Some of more overt references can be found on the first Audioslave album, as in the song, “Show Me How To Live”: Continue reading “A sprawling, highly subjective review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal””

Anxious to bag, tag, and play “King Animal”

(I wrote an incredibly deep and moving intro to this, but it all disappeared when I posted it. So, here is the shorter version.) I came to Soundgarden very late, just a few years ago, having (wisely) mostly dismissed the meaninglessly named “grudge” movement of the early 1990s. The only Seattle group I listened to c. 1991 was Queensrÿche, whose brilliant “Empire” came out around the same time as Nirvana’s overrated album, the very aptly named “Nevermind” (exactly right, boys). I am now a staunch Soundgarden advocate, convinced that Chris Cornell is not only one of the finest rock vocalists of the past thirty years, but also one of the finest songwriters of the same era. He also has some proggy tricks up his sleeves. More on that in future posts. For now, here is a fine preview/review of the band’s new album, “King Animal”, due out in early November; it was written by Clare O’Brien and posted on the “Chris Cornell News” blog:

The cover of Soundgarden’s new album depicts a pile of bones, arranged almost ritualistically within a snowy forest clearing. And although rock music is no stranger to the gothic, this doesn’t come over as the usual kind of heavy-metal art cliché. It suggests not so much the trophies of an unseen hunter as something unearthed by an archaeologist – something powerful left underground, now brought to the surface and bathed in the light of a new winter’s morning.
It’s a good enough metaphor for a creative entity that’s been invisible for fifteen years. Although its individual members continued to work and make music during the band’s absence, there’s been much speculation about what kind of album they’d choose to make in 2012.  Would they do as others have done and try to recreate their own past? Or would they strike out in a new direction?
The answer isn’t a clear-cut one.  All four members of the band compose (Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd even contribute a lyric each) and the songs are as varied as that might suggest. Hearing ‘King Animal’ is a bit like tracking a mysterious beast through a wilderness, encountering all kinds of different terrain, changing light and changing weather on the way.
The search begins with ‘Been Away Too Long’, which seems at first like a crowd-pleasing slice of AC/DC inspired rock triumphalism. On the surface, it screams “we’re back”, and it was the obvious choice for a first single. But look a little closer at this white-knuckle ride through the band’s origins, and disorientation and dysfunction aren’t far away. “You can’t go home, no I swear you never can….and no one knows me, no one saves me, no one loves or hates me.” Cornell has described this radio-friendly track as a “door” to what follows, and in spite of its accessibility, its violent riffing and oddly dreamlike middle section hint at the jagged complexities beyond.
What follows is one of the most varied musical explorations you’ll hear for some time. ‘Non-State  Actor’ has lyrics [mostly] by Kim Thayil which ooze an angry scepticism, riding uneasily on Shepherd’s restless musical undertow. It’s a thorny song, difficult to grasp, its twitching rhythms evoking a sense of paranoia and suspicion.  ‘By Crooked Steps’opens with a dreamy Beatles canvas of backwards tape effects and then hurls you under a furious jackhammer riff which never relents, while Cornell spins a looping, questioning melody – in a different time signature –  seamlessly over the top.
Read the entire review. And how about that cover art? Phew!