“I got nowhere to go ever since I came back,” Chris Cornell growls over a warped-alloy guitar charge on “Been Away Too Long,” the lead single from the first Soundgarden album since 1996. He’s singing about Seattle, about coming home after years away and feeling out of place in his own hometown. He’s also talking about a sound: the grunge his band helped define, and which once dominated rock’s mainstream. Now, there isn’t much of a rock mainstream left to dominate; big, heavy, high-protein bands like Soundgarden are all but extinct. Which is exactly why King Animal is a weirdly cool beast to encounter in 2012 – like running into a mastodon in a Melvins T-shirt.
The band’s sound manages to be as ageless as it is anachronistic. Soundgarden were the crusty hard-rock true believers amid alt-rock’s self-appointed revolutionaries: If Nirvana wanted to shred your world and Pearl Jam strove to redeem it, Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron wanted to take you out in the woods with a six-pack and headbang to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. King Animal shows they haven’t forgotten how to stomp out the jams: Thayil is still a warlock guitar conjurer of the first order, and Cornell rolls around his multi-octave vocal range like some kind of backwoods metal-Mariah.
The album follows their root sound down all kinds of mossy paths – from the South Asia-meets-New Orleans blues burn of “Black Saturday” to “A Thousand Days Before,” a snake-hipped meditation on the impermanence of life. Naturally, its centerpiece moment is its heaviest: “Blood on the Valley Floor,” where sumptuously evil riffs fall like redwoods as Cornell spools out images of war as mindless decadence. “The blood dries while we spill,” he sings. “Endless summer.”
It’s a quintessentially Soundgarden moment: overpowering but self-loathing. What made them “grunge” and not just a new kind of old metal was their dire, brutal despair. The band’s greatest songs – miasmic punishers like “Black Hole Sun” or “Fell on Black Days,” from their 1994 watershed, Superunknown – undercut massive music with lyrics about helplessness and depression.
Being Seattle in the Nineties, that helplessness suggested drug abuse. But King Animal was recorded by sober dudes in their forties – the hymnlike “Bones of Birds” is about the challenges of parenting, and “Halfway There” is a matter-of-fact take on class stagnation: “Something to eat?/I would say you’re doing better than most, though maybe not as well as some,” Cornell observes.
That line could describe Cornell’s years post-Soundgarden: supergroup success with Tom Morello in Audioslave, then a decade wandering the post-alt-rock solo wilderness, complete with a Timbaland-produced electro-rock puzzler (2009’s Scream). After years of failed reinvention, the guy on King Animal sounds content to be himself. “Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing,” he moans like a mantra, awash in black swirls of industrial-strength murk on the album’s closing track. It’s that old-time sludge that carries him home.
Listen to ‘King Animal’