At the time of writing this, I've listened to King Animal all the way through probably 12-15 times. I've quite intentionally taken a long time to comment on it, as well as carefully avoiding any other commentary or info about the album. I wanted to be cautious & unbiased with this album for multiple reasons:
1.When a band goes that many years between releases (16 in this case) I'm always a bit hesitant-even skeptical. Being
a musician myself-but especially as a huge music FAN-I've seen far too many "reunions" for the wrong reasons.
2.I didn't want to be affected by the hype surrounding the release of King Animal, knowing well many of my friends have
been anxiously awaiting its arrival. (I didn't want to just say "This is a great album" because we've waited so long)
3.I didn't want to let the fact that I'm not a huge Soundgarden fan cause me to unjustly criticize it or take away
aspects of its "specialness" I knew it would have for so many others.
Okay, those are my disclaimers; on with my review:
General Album Notes
It takes all of 7 seconds to realize this album was made by a band on a mission-it's clear they made it because they had something to say, not because it was "time to make an album." I was very thankful for this, of course. I get strong personal visuals from this album from start to finish and have sort of woven those into a story-only as I see it (don't forget I'm a sci-fi/fantasy geek at heart)-not saying Soungarden or any of its members intended it that way. I see the album broken into 3 parts (4 songs each) with the last track being sort of an epilogue (I'll explain more about this later).
I was most impressed by how their influences shine through clearly throughout the album, and how they've redefined themselves while still maintaining their identity that made them who they were: they've grown up but not forgotten where they came from; they've softened (not necessarily musically, but as people) but not lost their edge. This is an album that grows on me more with each listen-and it grows warmer. Songs that didn't "reach" me initially worked their way into my imaginary story as time went on, and now I can hardly listen to this album without listening to it in its entirety-this would be perfect to have on vinyl, btw (note to self).
One of the things I feared before listening to this album for the first time was that it would be overproduced. Happily it was actually a little under-produced at times-and this is no flaw! There's just enough "rawness" in the production to let us "feel" their energy & emotions. I honestly can't think of a single thing they could have done differently production-wise that would have made it better. On early listens I found the vocals a bit under-produced at times and wondered whether they were trying to disguise limitations of Cornell's voice (he IS getting older you know). On later listens, however, I realized that the vocals were produced perfectly for this particular album, and whether or not Cornell was dealing with limitations is irrelevant to the album.
Finally, before getting on with a track-by-track review, I'll add that this is clearly an album BY empaths FOR empaths. (If you're confused by the term "empath" CLICK THIS )
Section 1-Departure From The Mountain & A Call To Arms (Tracks 1-4)
1.Been Away Too Long
Soundgarden could not have chosen a better song to start the album with-it punches you in the cheekbone immediately and all but commands you to listen to the rest of the album-you know right off that you've passed the point of no return. I'm sure the irony of the opening track's title isn't lost on those so anxiously awaiting the album's release, and I think there's a good chance it wasn't lost on the band either. Visually, I see a huge black warhorse (armor, flaring nostrils and all) behind an iron gate that's just been lifted, and it speeds out of there in a cloud of dust, and down the mountain. The overdue journey has begun.
The intensity of track 1 continues, Cornell's opening scream is perfectly under-produced: he's angry, but in a rationally divine way. Things are really jacked-up in many ways-it's time to come together and do something about it, this is the message I get from this song. This is the call-to-arms of a spiritual war that's imminent. Visually, I see the warhorse continuing down the mountain, stopping off here and there picking up new recruits for the ensuing battle. Lyrically, they're telling us the battle has begun and they're establishing their side--telling us where they come from emotionally. From here on out there are no lukewarm allies-"you are with us or against us, and we've got the power" is the message it conveys to me. As a side note, I wonder if "I'll be your beast of burden" is a sneaky shout-out to the Rolling Stones, as I do believe there are many secret shout-outs to their predecessors/influences on this album.
3.By Crooked Steps*
Don't let the soft intro fool you-they're still carrying the momentum of the first two tracks. This is a huge empathy song lyrically, but as with the 1st two comes from a position of authority-they're not to be reckoned with. Visually, the warhorse continues gathering its army-we're almost to the valley where the battle will take place. Along the way, the warhorse inspires, encourages, and instructs the recruits. Musically, this song is also very classic Soundgarden (as I understand them) not unlike the 1st two tracks. Zeppelin & Black Sabbath as the primary backdrop, but ultimately Soundgarden.
4.A Thousand Days Before
For the 1st time on the album we get a real chance to breathe. This is a transitional song-both musically and lyrically. We're being introduced to a more mature Soundgarden and we hear some different influences now: a bit southern rock-ish in a way, but also more Beatles-influenced than what they'd normally reveal. If I'm not mistaken I also hear some Traffic/Steve Winwood in this song. I don't believe these are new influences to them mind you, I just think they haven't chosen to reveal that side of themselves before-maybe they're coming to terms with their maturity in a very pleasant way. Visually, the warhorse and a substantial army have reached the valley-this is the calm before the storm. I see campfires and even some laughter as we take a one-night respite before the battle begins at sunrise.
Section 2 Battle, Death, and Attrition
5.Blood On The Valley Floor
The extremely Black-Sabbath-ish vibe to this song is no coincidence in my opinion-in fact, I think it was necessary. Black Sabbath had a way of bringing the adrenaline, but in a controlled kind of way-they were the gentle groove of the mosh pit. This is Love Rock made relentless & powerful. In my opinion, this is the most "grunge" sounding song on the album, and Cornell's voice reminds me a bit of Layne Staley in a couple of places. As a side note that has nothing to do with any of this, the opening guitar riff makes me think of the TV show Freaks & Geeks DVD I have. Visually, it's on! Epic battle scenes-reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings but not quite as large. It's a beautifully ugly scene: loved ones are lost and unforeseen heroes are made.
6.Bones Of Birds
The sobering effects of a necessary spiritual battle are felt deeply: we fight tooth and nail (no, that's not a sneaky Dokken reference as much as I love them) to make a brighter future for those we love, but we lose some of them in doing so-it's a terrible feeling. This song is very Black Hole Sun to me stylistically, prototypical Soundgarden of the 90's. Visually, the warhorse licks its wounds before a campfire as we all recover emotionally from the reality of battle. It would be easy for this army to surrender as we bury some of our loved ones and wrap bandages on those who have survived day one-but this army will NOT surrender. As Obi Wan would (hypothetically) say, if they died fighting for what we believe in, then it was worth it. As an added note, I find it really awesome that the "bird" sounds you hear at the end were made via Kim Thayil's guitar.
We carry the somberness of the previous track into Taree, but on a deeper level. Soundgarden reveals more of their new sound to us in this song, but-again-not at the expense of their identity. To mistake the gentle groove of this song for weakness would be a grave mistake-Cornell is revealing more of himself in this song than you probably realize. The double stops on guitar between the chorus and verse do a fabulous job of pulling us into his microcosm, and it's semblance to Lynyrd Skynyrd stylistically is awesome (for those not familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd, I offer no assistance). Visually, the warhorse and entire army mourn the loss of a very special friend and ally. Today, the army fights in his honor! #LoveRockPrevails As a side note, the fact that the name "Taree" means "tree by the river" is not lost on us, whether or not Soundgarden or any of its members intended any such intention.
Honestly, my favorite thing about this song is that its intro reminds me of Molly Hatchet's "Bloody Reunion." (for those that question me, here's the link to Molly Hatchet's song so you can compare yourself
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAQHPdbGtt8 ). My second favorite thing about this song is the Rolling Stones-sounding "woo hoos" in the latter part of it. This is the one song that still hasn't managed to grow on me much yet-we'll see what time brings. Visually, this is a very important song-the warhorse and it's pitiful band (yes, that's a shameless shout-out to Star Wars) have reached the end of the valley, and they seek entrance into the next iron gate-the one that will lead them up the mountain and to the place where they belong. They give their argument as to why they should be allowed to proceed.
Part 3 Redemption & The New Mountain
It's ironic to me they'd use the word "black" in the title of such an un-Black Sabbath type of song, though my mind reminds me that "Born Again" was a title of what (in my opinion) is one of the most underrated Black Sabbath albums (yes, I'm a huge Ian Gillan fan). Soundgarden's always been spiritual, but this song's a great reminder for those that have forgotten. This is by far the most Zeppelin-esque of the songs on the album and probably my personal fave to this point. Somehow in only one song Soundgarden has managed to capture the essence of Zep I, II, and III-had someone told me this could be done I would never have believed them. Believe it, it's true-remember this is coming from someone who is not quick to praise Soundgarden. This song-above & beyond all others on this album assures me that more albums are in the works & that the best of Soundgarden is yet to come (yes, if you bought a Soundgarden's best of, you may discard of it now). Visually, the warhorse and his few companions that are left have been granted entrance through the iron gate that will lead them up the final mountain-they will forever be remembered as legends and heroes. The only battles that remain (yes, I'm thinking of Zeppelin's "Song Remains The Same" as I type this) are within the individual. We continue to ascend and prove to the world that #LoveRockPrevails
This is such a classic Soundgarden-sounding song from the mid 90's, and oh so very sweet. In my opinion, this is the most radio-friendly track off the album, though I must admit if this were the 1st song a person heard off of King Animal they'd end up missing the point. It's a perfect blend of music, melody, and lyrics, and may at some point replace Black Saturday as my fave track from the album. Also, as I mentioned for an earlier track, do not mistake this song's softness for weakness nor lack of an edge-they've still got the power. I hear heavy Beatles influence in this song, btw. Visually, the warhorse and his loving companions find more questions than answers as they proceed up the glorious new mountain. The war is over-and though they live to sing another day-they're not quite sure if they won or lost this war. They press on warmly with a pleasant song in their heart and try their best to accept that the prize will be worth the cost. It will. #LoveRockPrevails As a side note, if anyone could tell me what the distorted voice says in two syllables at the 2:59 mark I'd be much obliged.
This is the most fascinating song on the album for me-both lyrically AND musically-but in a very awesome way. The dynamics of this song are simply fantabulous. If any readers of this know anything about electronics, this song is both series AND parallel at the same time. Just had a thought: likely the reason this song fascinates me so is that it's the best blend of dark & light on the album-it's really quite incredible though I know this song won't be remembered as one of Soundgarden's most legendary. Visually, the warhorse and its shrinking number of companions are forced to recommit themselves-this is the last chance to jump ship. Though the material war is over, the internal one will be even harsher; the steps to this final mountain will be the steepest yet: we're to the point now where each person carries their own burden; no one will be there to carry the load they cannot bear. Press on only if you wish to ascend.
This is another song that seems heavily influenced by southern rock (again, if you don't know who Lynyrd Skynrd is I can't help you). The beginning of this song also reminds me of my Freaks & Geeks DVD, but this time it's the bass guitar that takes me there. The thought enters my mind that the bass line from this song ties in with track 5 though I suspect this was completely unintentional on the part of Soundgarden. There's a lot of soul in this song, actually a great way to close the album in my opinion-also some great Zeppelin vibes in it as it progresses (and yes, I realize there's one more song on the album-but this is the last one as my story goes; I'll explain this more in the next paragraph). Visually, the warhorse and his few allies that have retained the strength to carry on have reached the summit. The repetitious chanting at the end is a perfect way to close the album (yes, I know there's one more track, hint hint).
As much as I love this final track of King Animal (and I'm not complaining that it's on this album-it really does belong there) it seems like it would fit better as an intro to Soundgarden's next album-and yes, after what I've heard on this album, there's no doubt there will be more Soundgarden albums coming in the future. I have no inside info, but as a musician I can just tell. The band is anxiously awaiting your praise for the new direction they'll be heading, and I sincerely hope you give it to them. The idea is that this just keeps going, it doesn't end-we've got to stick with it, keep believing, and doing what we can to make this world a better place for generations to come. Visually, the warhorse has dug his own grave, and he spends his time from here on out relaxing until you bury him there. We found the path-we made it! Celebrate, and always remember that #LoveRockPrevails
I firmly believe we will see more Soundgarden albums in the future and that they will continue to shine. For me, this album was a redistribution of the #Heartshine and I believe Atomic Honey (yes, that's my band for those who haven't figured that out somehow) has found themselves a new ally. Soundgarden is now truly ready to spread the Love Rock, and we've got their back!
Overall I'm giving this album 4.5 stars for now, though that's subject to change: in all honesty I can't find any reason not to give it 5 stars other than my stubborn rule of not giving an album this recent 5 stars. For me, 5-star albums are few and far between, and I don't want to cheapen the honor for the few that have made it. I hope this review gives you some insight to Soundgarden's King Animal and that you'll understand that this was an important album that needed to be made.