Rediscovering EXTRA: Soundgarden’s King Animal

Happy first Rediscovering of the new year, lads! If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to reflect briefly on how this little series of mine is doing, because frankly, I’m amazed this is still going on. Normally, I’d have gotten sick of this shit by now. Perhaps that’s due to the lack of a formal deadline for posts to burn me out on. On the contrary, this series has been what’s encouraged me to attack the pile as fast as I have. Remember, some of these have been sitting for a solid eight years of so!

If you’re wondering how the pile’s doing now, we’re about halfway down. It’s been a pretty even split between “keep” and “toss”–six out and seven in, and not all of the ones I’m keeping have been purely positive experiences. I guess you can expect a random selection of CDs to mostly mildly please or displease, with a few outright duds (like Chemical Chords) and a few surprise favorites (like Enema of the State). Overall though, I’m at the mercy of how much I like these albums. I’m not here trying to light these albums on fire; I’m just trying to control the junk levels here at Somnolescent HQ.

And with that brief lookback out of the way, let’s get back to the feature presentation! If you’re wondering about the “extra” in the title, today’s album wasn’t actually in the initial Rediscovering stack. Yes, I somehow had more CDs I hadn’t listened to lying around. This one came in a digipak, so it didn’t fit on my CD shelf. Such is life. Soundgarden’s reunion record–King Animal!

My previous experience, if any

I’d known about “Black Hole Sun” for a while, of course, but it took stealing a copy of Superunknown off one of the many guys my mom’s been with to properly fall in love with Soundgarden. I actually revisited that record this past December, and yeah–it’s still a masterwork. Their prior and next records are both good, but Superunknown somehow runs for 70 minutes and never flags. It’s huge, complex but never masturbatory, and the songs are never second to the band.

While I don’t remember where I got King Animal, I can narrow it down a little. I only found Superunknown in the summer of 2013, and this is the Best Buy edition with several demos after the main album. I’m guessing it was a birthday present or something a good six years ago now. How grateful I am. Still, I do remember a few of the tracks, so I didn’t totally ignore it.

The history lesson

Soundgarden were always the most technical of the “big four” of grunge. Nirvana came from punk, Pearl Jam was classic rock, and Alice in Chains was sludge, but Soundgarden occupied another world entirely, a bit like if Zeppelin ripped off Black Sabbath rather than black people. After breaking up in 1997 and after Chris’ very bizarre post-Soundgarden activities involving Timbaland, some reunited live shows became one song became a whole album. King Animal soon followed their proper reunion in 2012.


As skeptical of this one as I was going in, it all turned out unwarranted. It’s a record you’ll like if you like Soundgarden. When they’re up to their old tricks, things are more skilled and better crafted, if less immediate, but it’s the songs that aren’t those that I like the best. If nothing else, it’s certainly stronger than some of the other 90s reunion albums we’ve looked at around here.

Counter to what I just said, having “Been Away Too Long” as the opener is fucking awesome. It’s got vigor, the riffs are great, it shows off how Chris Cornell’s voice had aged (answer: noticeably, but still well), and though you probably can’t call it a solo, Ben Shepherd’s menacing little bassline in the bridge is one I still hum sometimes. When my only reservation is the bizarre “fade-in” effect on the intro guitar, you know you’ve got a good song.

King Animal can be split into its halves, and aside from “Been Away”, the first half feels like if if Soundgarden stuffed its more usual tracks along the first part of the disc to prove they could still be heavy. Nowhere is that more apparent than “By Crooked Steps”, one of a few tracks to call back to Badmotorfinger with its start-stop groove that wouldn’t sound out of place next to “Jesus Christ Pose”. Only problem–I keep having to check if I have the right song because I can barely remember it.

This record doesn’t really get good until until “Blood on the Valley Floor” a few songs in. “Valley Floor” gets much better results out of the Badmotorfinger formula, with Chris’ singing floating over a disorienting riff heavy enough to match “4th of July”, or at least “Limo Wreck”. “Bones of Birds” has some great key changes in it, going from desolate and bluesy in the verses to transcendent in the choruses. It’s also nice to hear more of Matt Cameron’s drumming again, making the shifting meter in each line feel totally straight.

Of note in the mix is “Taree”, actually a fairly old track dating back to Ben Shepherd’s debut album in the 90s, but held for Chris to sing at some future date instead. I’m glad he held onto it, because Chris’ voice is absolutely built for this song. I remember being really hype when the chorus kicked in–“oh fuck, I remember this song!” Ben’s tracks have always had this more psychedelic, winding feel to them that makes for a good transition between the two halves. Great song.

Overall, the second half of the record fares a whole lot better than the first. There’s a lot of elements to it that aren’t that weird for most bands, but given how leaden Soundgarden can be, you’re surprised to hear them here. Case in point, “Black Saturday” and “Halfway There” are both driven by acoustic guitars, the former with an almost twangy, country influence to it, and the latter more plaintive. I’m tempted to call it Soundgarden’s take on pop rock, but it’s not happy pop rock–just really buoyant by their standards.

Even more surprising are “Worse Dreams” and “Eyelid’s Mouth”, both driven by proper bass grooves. As complex as their bass parts can be, it’s not often that Soundgarden properly grooves by them, and even when they do get heavy, it’s not nearly as thick as they usually get. A little more color and a little more air in the proceedings–a nice change of pace. By the time you get to “Rowing”, resigned as much as Upside‘s “Boot Camp” was to a harsh, manual future, you’re honestly a bit surprised at just how much range Soundgarden shows here–if you weren’t bored away by the first half.

King Animal is spotty, but a lot of their records are like that to me. I could probably narrow Down on the Upside to a ten track album I really love over the 65-minute, 16 song attempted opus that came on the CD that I only like. This is a reunion record that I think people have underrated, largely because they expected the anger and energy you could wring out a few guys in their 20s out of those same guys in their 40s and 50s, and you just can’t expect that.

It’s not the exciting, loud, fast Soundgarden record they’ve made before, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s still a lot of neat sounds and quality songs on King Animal to please you, should you stick with it.

Are you keeping it?

I’m sticking with it.

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