November 12th, 2012, SOUNDGARDEN released their sixth studio album, King Animal, through Universal Records. It wasn’t love or money that inspired Soundgarden’s reunion – it was a poorly worded tweet. The band later revealed they had no plans to re-form before Chris Cornell posted a message about their new website on January 1st, 2010, which was misinterpreted as an announcement that the band was reforming.
“The 12-year break is over, and school is back in session,” Chris Cornell announced on Twitter on New Year’s Day 2010. “Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again! soundgardenworld.com.” But while this may have seemed like a rallying cry from the band, who split in 1997, they later said they were only unveiling their new website. “We had neglected our legacy and our fans, so we were just starting the fan club again,” guitarist Kim Thayil told Kerrang in 2010. Cornell said: “There was a concern about protecting the band’s legacy. There was no catalogue promotion, no Soundgarden website. So we got back together to discuss serving the fanbase, and it felt great.”
But as soon as fans’ appetites were whetted, they were clamouring for the group to reunite. Even Rolling Stone misunderstood Cornell’s tweet. “I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my friends that we weren’t back together,” Thayil said. “My mother called and said, ‘We’ve heard the news, why didn’t you tell us?'”
“It generated a lot of interest, and my phone was ringing off the hook with people offering us shows,” Thayil continued. “We turned most of them down but thought it would be fun to play that show in Seattle and eventually play Lollapalooza. Only around then was there talk about doing some new material.”
Soundgarden’s split in 1997 was a tough pill to swallow. Here was a band that represented everything unique and thrilling about the Seattle scene. Formed in 1984, they had forged a singular path through the underground punk, alternative rock and metal scenes of the ’80s before achieving mega-stardom in the ’90s. No one sounded like Soundgarden, and they sounded like no other band. They married visceral punk energy to cerebral prog and jazz time signatures while injecting their sonic melting pot with lashings of atmosphere, impeccable, inventive musicianship and a searing metallic edge.
Their songwriting was beyond reproach; album after album, the band grew and expanded on a formula only they had the keys to. Despite the members being roughly the same age as their Pacific Northwest peers, Soundgarden always seemed like father figures. It’s hard to imagine the scene without them. So when, on April 9th, 1997, the band announced it was disbanding, word of their demise came as a hammer blow.
Thayil said after the announcement, “It was pretty obvious from everybody’s general attitude over the previous half year that there was some dissatisfaction.” Cameron later said that Soundgarden was “eaten up by the business.” Whatever the truth was behind the decision to dissolve the band, it acted as another nail in the coffin for the music explosion that just six years earlier burned so bright it engulfed all in its wake.
The grunge landscape was, by 1997, a barren one. Nirvana folded in 1994 after Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide. Alice In Chains was on hiatus as Layne Staley’s chronic addiction took a firm hold, halting recording and touring. And Pearl Jam had retreated into the equivalent of a musical foetal position, having doggedly shunned media and the ‘normal’ routes of record company PR. In hindsight, Pearl Jam’s circling of the wagons was paramount to their survival as a band. Considering the attrition rate among their peers, their bold moves now seem wise and strategically brilliant, but at the time, their eschewing of the limelight frustrated fans.
Soundgarden knew their time was up; interpersonal relations were strained, and one suspects the creative process was suffering. Chris Cornell was destined for a solo career, which he launched soon after Soundgarden’s demise. Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in 1998, securing the drum stool to this day and ending the revolving door of drummers Pearl Jam entertained since 1991. Kim Thayil contributed to recordings by Sunn O))), Johnny Cash, Pigeonhed, Presidents of the United States of America, Dave Grohl’s Probot project, and formed the short-lived No WTO Combo with Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic. Ben Shepherd started Wellwater Conspiracy with Matt Cameron and John McBain of Monster Magnet and recorded with Mark Lanegan and Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions.
As time passed, Soundgarden’s flame dimmed out of view but never left the hearts of their legions of fans. So when, on New Year’s Day 2010, Chris Cornell made his “poorly worded” announcement regarding the band’s new website, fans clamouring for a reunion instantly took it to mean Soundgarden were back. Cornell said that when the band members started hanging out again a couple of years before their eventual reunion, they naturally fell into a nostalgic mode, which he said is a given when you’re in the room with “three other people you have that kind of history with.” Inevitably, he said, they started to talk about “different moments” from “different parts of our career.”
If Soundgarden’s thirteen-year hiatus proved anything, it was that the chemistry between these four individuals was magnetic and a once-in-a-lifetime combination. While Cornell’s solo career and his time in Audioslave were often inspired, they largely paled against the white-hot heat of Soundgarden. Matt Cameron is undoubtedly one of the finest drummers of his generation, and his work with Pearl Jam is, at times, electrifying. Still, his eclectic, powerhouse, off-kilter, jazz-inspired drumming fit Soundgarden like a glove, as did Ben Shepherd’s galvanising creativity and Kim Thyail’s devastatingly beautiful a-tonal guitar playing. Individually, they needed each other.
After a not-so-secret reunion show at The Showbox in Seattle in 2010 under the moniker “Nudedragons” (an anagram of Soundgarden) and a headlining slot at that year’s Lollapalooza, the band announced they had started writing new songs. Recording sessions for a new album began at Seattle’s Studio X with producer Adam Kasper. The sessions were interrupted so Cornell could fulfil his “Songbook” solo acoustic tour. Cameron claimed in April 2011 that the album would be released later that year, but the recording was prolonged, with Thayil saying: “The more we enjoy it, the more our fans should end up enjoying it.”
In October 2011, Cornell said the band would return to the studio in December, and the album was “mostly done; we just need to finish a couple of songs and mix it, so that will probably be happening over the holidays.” In May 2012, the band reported they were eyeing an October release. On September 17th, it was announced that the album would be released on November 13th, 2012 and titled King Animal.
As mission statements go, the opening track, “Been Away Too Long”, sets out the band’s stall with a firey intensity. The song was the album’s first single. Cornell said, “The initial spark and idea did feel like, yes, we’ve been out, and we’ve been gone for fifteen years, and now we’re back. It’s about time, and we still have something to say about rock music that no one else is saying, and I feel confident about saying that.”
The music of “Been Away Too Long” started with a Cornell demo “in a fairly compact form without a bridge,” Chris stated. Bassist Ben Shepherd later provided the bridge. Shepherd noted the working title was “EBE” because of the song’s modal guitar tuning of EEBBBB. Ben said his bridge section was intended to be “a vast apocalyptic melody.”
“Non-State Actor” is classic Soundgarden; no other rock band could have conceived such an off-kilter slab of rock perfection. The song’s howling, riff-swallowing blitzkrieg could easily sit alongside their finest ’90s output. “You are the tank and rockets. I am the bomb,” Chris Cornell bellows as shards of instrumental shrapnel rain down.
“By Crooked Steps” opens with distant guitars, reverse effects and a spooky atmosphere before blowing the doors off with a stuttering machine gun riff that switches between a 5/4 and a 4/4 rhythm, offering listeners an unexpected yet intriguing auditory experience. The juxtaposition of Cameron’s drumming with the pummelling riff gives the song an almighty elliptical groove over which Cornell finds some genuinely astonishing and unanticipated vocal melodies.
“A Thousand Days Before” opens with an atmospheric, eastern-tinged guitar motif and Kim Thayil blowing on his guitar pickups. A rolling liner guitar riff enters, supported by Matt Cameron’s tumbling drum patterns, which propel Cornell’s ruminations on isolation and depression: “Life a thousand days ago—hours sinking in a hole. Try to melt into the walls. Now I am here inside the bowl. Here in the cold, where no one stands behind me.”
“Blood On The Valley” is a savage, glacial behemoth. Its incredible weight and wrecking ball groove is the sound of planets colliding. This is Soundgarden at their unique best. Heavy in sound and subject, “Blood On The Valley Floor” addresses themes of chaos, violence, and the destructive nature of human existence. Cornell uses vivid and symbolic imagery to paint a picture of a society on the brink of collapse.
With the chorus refrain of “Mountains all around, altogether we stumble”, Cornell suggests a sense of disorientation and confusion; the mountains represent the obstacles and challenges everyone faces. Followed by a weary admittance that man’s cycle of violence continues unabated. “The smoke lies on the valley floor, and the blood dries while we spill some more.” It’s Soundgarden at its finest.
The jaw-droppingly beautiful “Bones Of Birds” is a powerful and thought-provoking piece that delves into the themes of loss, longing, and the complexities of human existence. The song begins with sombre guitar chords and Cornell’s distinct vocals, immediately setting a melancholy tone. The lyrics evoke a sense of despair and reflect on the fragility of life.
“Bones of Birds” is a testament to Soundgarden’s ability to create reflective and emotionally charged music that is equally as impactful and memorable as their more abrasive rock songs. The band’s ability to deliver an atmosphere of introspection and emotional depth plays a crucial role in connecting with the listener.
“Taree’s” snaking riff lurks just behind the beat with a languid groove and unhurried pace. The song was written by bassist Ben Shepherd with lyrics by Chris Cornell. Shepherd recalled, “I wrote the music before we broke up. And I always wanted Chris and the band to do it. Because it had this certain mood, I knew Chris would nail it right away, and he nailed it and helped to arrange it, so it has more emotion than it used to.”
“Attrition” is one of those rare occasions Soundgarden revels in a straight 4/4 beat. There’s a crushing punk energy mixed with an intense stoner groove. Matt Cameron excels, adding inventive tom rolls, deft cymbal work and even double kick drum patterns. It’s the sound of Soundgarden doing acid-soaked biker rock, not a million miles from the din created by their old ’90s touring mates Monster Magnet.
“Black Saturday” opens with an acoustic guitar and percussion in a wickedly odd time signature. Gradually building into a prog-grunge masterpiece, its disparate elements weave around each other before intertwining for a euphoric chorus.
“Halfway There” initially sounds more like a Chris Cornell solo song than a Soundgarden piece. A light, Beatles-esque melody and strummed acoustic jangle explore the musical paths Cornell took during his years outside the band. Cornell’s lyrics are beautifully realised and filled with stunning imagery, “I woke up with my feet nailed down and my head moving the speed of sound.” Before adding, “And how far is halfway there? I didn’t see you on the trail. Did almost become good enough? Should a good life be so hard won? Is that what our dreams have become?”
“Worse Dreams” fades in with distant guitars looping a two-note motif and feeding back. Matt Cameron’s high hats come to the fore, followed by a stunning, jazzy, walking bass riff from Ben Shepherd. Thayil joins the fray as the band swing like snake charmers. Cornell’s looping vocal melody hypnotically dances like a docile cobra above the fray before a lunging venomous chorus.
The dense yet spacious atmosphere of “Eyelids Mouth” is haunting. The call-and-response chorus feels like a distant cousin of “Outshined.” Cornell sings, “Through the eyelet comes unimagined light, unremembered sun. Only the rivers run, but never hide” during the final verse before the song’s outro gains intensity.
The album comes to a close with “Rowing.” It originated during a jam session riff by bassist Ben Shepherd, leading to a new band approach. Frontman Chris Cornell explained: “On this album, we recorded the rehearsals, which we’ve never done before. By rehearsals, I mean songwriting sessions where we were messing around. The song is based on a little interlude on the bass, which Ben played when the rest of us were talking. We weren’t even paying attention, and he was messing around. I heard it; it sounded like one of those things I’d try to tune into. I have done that since the beginning of Soundgarden.”
“Everybody in the band is capable of throwing out something brilliant without necessarily knowing it or paying attention to it,” Cornell added, “Sometimes, I chase that down. Having the ability to check the recording and seek out, I found the spot I liked and looped the part I thought worked in the context of a loop. Then, we created the song around it. We’d never really done anything like that before.”
King Animal unfolds slowly; its riches are sometimes buried, but once they’re unearthed, the album reveals itself as a treasure trove of classic Soundgarden material. The band signed off with Down On The Upside in 1996; it could be argued they returned with an even more substantial and tightly honed effort in 2012 with King Animal.
The chemistry between the four band members was still as potent as ever. Drawing the best from each other, the band delivered an album that easily stood shoulder to shoulder with their pre-hiatus work. Soundgarden never made anything remotely resembling a weak album. After thirteen years of inactivity, one might have expected them to have lost their considerable edge, but King Animal flies in the face of that notion.
For now, this album stands as the band’s epitaph. Chris Cornell’s tragic, heartbreaking death put an end to the joyous reformation of one of the greatest bands in recent times. We now have to be happy to have witnessed a Soundgarden reunion at all. King Animal is a glorious album that corrals all the nuance, experimentation and beauty of the band’s formidable back catalogue into one extortionary collection of songs. Like the talents of the members of the band itself, King Animal’s magic lies in its songs taken as a whole rather than individually. They were firing on all cylinders and rejuvenated, the future for Soundgarden’s post-reformation was blindingly bright.