In the 16 years since Soundgarden’s last outing, both music consumers and critics have shifted their tastes on a fundamental level, such that the kind of portentous rock music that made the Seattle quartet one of the biggest successes of the grunge era is now considered indefensibly gauche. Even a cursory glance at the modern rock charts—dominated by the likes of Fun., Mumford & Sons, and Gotye—makes it clear that Soundgarden’s lasting influence on contemporary artists has been negligible, begging the question of precisely who, in 2012, was clamoring for King Animal, the band’s comeback album. That the album picks up almost exactly where 1996’s Down on the Upside left off only suggests that Soundgarden might not be able to answer that question for themselves.
The bulk of King Animal consists of midtempo cuts that emphasize lead guitarist Kim Thayil’s brawny guitar riffs, which incorporate fuzzed-out, grungy distortion into a prog-geek framework of deliberate de-tunings and unconventional time signatures. Just as it did on Superunknown‘s “My Wave” and “Kickstand” back in 1994, what Thayil’s distinctive guitar work does on tracks like “By Crooked Steps” and “Worse Dreams” is to create a sense of movement, as the arrangements rarely finish in the same places they began. Even on the shorter, more punk-leaning “Attrition” and the catchy “Halfway There” there’s a thoughtfulness to the band’s compositions.
What the songs almost uniformly lack, however, is a sense of drama. Frontman Chris Cornell sounds better here than at any point in either his solo career or his tenure with Audioslave, but the plodding “Bones of Birds” and rote bar-blues tune “Taree” don’t give him much of an opportunity to unleash his trademark wail. Compared to past singles like “Black Hole Sun” and “Burden in My Hand,” the songs on King Animal have a limited dynamic range and want for memorable hooks. “Been Away Too Long,” the album’s lead single, is a total misfire, with Cornell attempting to give meaning to WTF lines like “This place has a special kind of falling apart” while paying predictable lip service to the band’s lengthy hiatus.
King Animal doesn’t contain any standout tracks that justify Soundgarden’s comeback or which rank as essential additions to the band’s very strong catalogue. The album is less a triumphant return than an example of what happens to most middle-aged rock bands: They’ve returned as a slightly more conservative version of what made them famous in the first place.