Released in November
I don't know what the bigger surprise is: that Soundgarden held out from reuniting for so long (King Animal is the band's first release of new material since their acrimonious break up in 1997), or that when they did return, they'd put out such a bland album whose best feature, sadly, is its cover. Drummer Matt Cameron has fared just fine since the band split as the drummer for Pearl Jam, while bassist Ben Shepherd and guitarist Kim Thayil have done little of musical note over that period. The same could be said of singer Chris Cornell, although for altogether different reasons. Cornell's unfulfilling solo work and three album run with Audioslave found the musician struggling to find his post-Soundgarden niche. In the case of his 2009 solo album Scream (which I reviewed here), the outcome was downright disastrous.
"Live To Rise", the band's theme song from this past spring's Avengers film, would prove to be a harbinger of what King Animal had in store - uninteresting songs completely devoid of the engaging qualities consistent with classic Soundgarden tracks like "Jesus Christ Pose", "Outshined", "Rusty Cage", "Like Suicide", or "Fell On Black Days", just to name a few. And don't misunderstand, I'm not even holding the band up to the lofty standards of songs like those. There simply isn't one track on King Animal that even remotely approaches anything on the level of their best work. Virtually all of these songs are more on par with the plentiful amount of filler that surrounded the great material on Soundgarden's older albums. The bluntly confessional "Been Away Too Long" ("You can't go home, no I swear you never can/You can walk a million miles and get nowhere/I got nowhere to go and it seems I came back") starts off as a decent enough statement-maker to open the album with, but gets bogged down by a mid-song interlude with clanging metal sound effects that totally saps the song of its momentum. "Non-State Actor", "By Crooked Steps", "Attrition", and "Worse Dreams" all similarly fall into the "somewhere below middling" level, unable to evolve their promising ideas into anything memorable. The rest of the songs turn out to be a huge chore to get through, especially the super-sludgey "Blood On The Valley Floor" and "Rowing".
Most of the ingredients from the grunge gods of old remain intact: Cornell's banshee wail, Shepherd's rumbling bass, Thayil's unique guitar style, Cameron's tastefully busy playing, depressing lyrics, loads of those off-kilter Soundgarden rhythm patterns...they just failed to come up with a single song that truly ignites and makes the decade and a half gap between new Soundgarden albums worth the wait. King Animal is my biggest musical disappointment of 2012.