Let’s put this into context. When Soundgarden split up, in April 1997, their demise was announced by Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. John Major’s government was still dragging its fetid, bleeding corpse around Westminster. The music press still had some relevance. Few that remain can remember such times.
Fifteen years on and grunge, like punk before it, has been simmered down to an aesthetic, a marketing tool through which Urban Outfitters can sell clothes to kids who were barely born when Down On The Upside was released – kids for whom Black Hole Sun’s primary role was in providing audio accompaniment for a tunnel of coloured rectangles looming ever closer on the TV screen as they clutch their plastic Rock Band guitars. In its wake lies the scattered remnants of a scene that, for a few years, was genuinely exciting in a way that nothing since has been, that bubbled up and ripped through everything else until it finally, somehow, washed up as Nickleback.
Nickleback. How the hell did they become grunge’s legacy? Perhaps if Pearl Jam had managed to – let’s be honest – put out a single decent album this century we wouldn’t be in this state. Alice In Chains we can forgive – it’s not as though Layne Staley hadn’t flagged his substance issues up – but the others should really have done something beyond the tepid side-projects and the narcissistic reissues, the greatest hits reunion tours and the video game song licensing. For fuck’s sake people, this is serious: Creed are currently recording a new album.
Whilst it’s still too soon to hail them as saviours – for that one of those skulls on King Animal’s front cover would need to be Chad Kroeger’s – we should at least be thankful that Soundgarden have heeded the call. Sure, it’s something of a surprise, what with singer Chris Cornell having roundly dismissed any notion of a reformation back in 2009, although given that he’d recently released the Timbaland-addled Scream he clearly wasn’t in his right mind. But it only takes a minute of the opener to forgive even that monumental folly: I’ve been away for too long howls Cornell convincingly, the riffs thick and the beats invigoured and the scent of sweat-drenched hair flailing against flannel shirts damn near overwhelming.
It never really lets up, that vigour. Non-State Actor rides in on some of the strongest guitar work since, well, Superunknown, Cornell’s staggering lungs propelling the song forward and the listener back a good two decades to pick up pretty much where the band left off. Whatever shifts and changes in musical fashion might have taken place in the intervening years they’re not showing up here: there’s no Korn-esque genre-hybridising, no bang-on-trend nods to dubstep nor digressions to experiment.
And thank goodness – Soundgarden have no need of any other sound. It wasn’t broken when they disbanded and, though the members themselves might average almost 50, it’s barely aged in the years since: King Animal’s thirteen tracks still lurk in the shadows, a threading of sensual melody and coiled, hostile rhythms. Highlights are everywhere, from the detuned murk of Blood On The Valley Floor to the Zeppelin stomp of Taree. Halfway There recalls Burden In My Hand, the growl stripped back and the focus on Cornell, whilst the penultimate Eyelid’s Mouth is as abrasive as anything from the Badmotorfinger/Superunknown heyday, Kim Thayil’s guitar work viscous and suffocating. The album peaks on closer Rowing, its nursery-rhyme couplets and hypnotic beats in a slow build to a final release, the peals of feedback strained out to the end.
And yet for all that as an album King Animal remains a somewhat numbing listen, its components, as excellent as they individually often are, making for a rather wearing collective, undeniably muscular but curiously unmemorable. There’s a singularity to the gloom that turns to claustrophobia somewhere around the midpoint, a cabin fever that never really subsides.
Still, perhaps that’s for the best. Shortly after Soundgarden’s original disbanding Thayil had bemoaned the shift in the group’s audience towards “the kids and the housewives, the casual fans.” There’s something reassuringly uncompromising about this comeback effort, something almost primal in its stubborn cling to a sound resolutely out of step with whatever constitutes the alternative mainstream right now. They needn’t fear the housewives, that’s for sure, and the kids aren’t likely to look their way for long. So who is King Animal for, exactly? The nostalgics? Those former stalwarts of the grunge generation, now pushing forty with a crippling mortgage and a spare room full of baby stuff where the guitars once sat? This album deserves to be more than just a memory aid to another era, an excuse to drag out the long-faded band t-shirts and to leave the hair unwashed awhile. But, sadly – really sadly – that’s probably what it’ll end up being.