The 90s child inside me, weaned on Q101 and Beavis and Butthead, had high hopes for this album: a stunning return from the only one of Seattle’s big four to make a graceful exit with all its players intact. A completely different part of me — the grown-up, too-cool-for-school reviewer of SERIOUS INDEPENDENT MUSIC — was praying for a good faceplant, a flaming 10-car pileup that would make Chris Cornell’s Scream seem like a good idea in retrospect. Neither corner of my being is walking away from King Animal feeling completely satisfied. The album is right at home with the rest of the Soundgarden catalog, as natural a progression from Down on the Upside as if it had been released in 1998 instead of 14 years later. Tragically, it feels no more necessary for that fact.
Soundgarden were always primo purveyors of heavy psychedelic rock, of metal filtered through a punk rock aesthetic. That wasn’t so unusual for Seattle in the late 80s/early 90s, but Soundgarden had two things going that helped them stand out from the rest of their grunge-rock peers: a guitarist capable of weaving dense, complex riffs and a singer with a vocal range that seemed downright inhuman. King Animal puts both to good use. Cornell, in particular, sounds phenomenal here. Maybe there’s some studio magic at work, but his ragged, tuneful wail sounds as fresh and precise as ever. “Non-state Actor” marks the most serendipitous combination of Soundgarden’s virtues. The song chugs along on one of Kim Thayil’s most kinetic riffs, and when Cornell rips into the chorus, dragging out into a gravelly animal howl for the final syllable of the line “a little bit more than everything,” it’s hard not to just give yourself over to the moment and throw up the devil horns.
Nothing else even comes close to touching that, though, and it’s difficult to determine exactly why. Everything sounds right, and all the pieces are seemingly in place, but the end product feels wholly insubstantial. Soundgarden’s best material conjures a dense atmosphere of gloom that renders Cornell’s angsty lyrics portentous and significant. But few of the songs on King Animal evoke much of anything in the way of feeling. Nothing here stacks up to a slow-burning conflagration like “Blow up the Outside World,” the metallic squall of “Jesus Christ Pose,” the apocalyptic drone of “Black Hole Sun,” or even the tender melancholy of deeper cuts like “Tighter & Tighter” or “Boot Camp.”
At least die-hard fans can take comfort in the fact that King Animal is a supremely listenable record. Except for the ballad “Halfway There” (the album’s one truly cringe-worthy moment), the tunes are heavy and raw, and they bear a credible resemblance to the group’s classic material. Still, I can’t get past the feeling that I’m witnessing some unholy act of necromancy. The bodies move, they make sounds, and they remember everything that our loved ones experienced, but that which animates them is not life. If this is all that the reconstituted Soundgarden is capable of offering to the band’s legacy, then I say the best thing to do is to crush this zombie’s skull and lay those bones to rest.