Here at Now Beer This we love having other voices talking about the two things that matter most- beer and music! This week we have guest writer Sean, who also has a review blog of his own, giving his take on the latest Soundgarden record. He even did a beer pairing with it! Thanks, Sean! Glad to have you on board!
THE RECORD: Soundgarden– King Animal– Released November 12, 2012
Where were you in 1996?
Think back to it. I was in 1st grade. I loved Nintendo, spelling tests, and Jonny Quest. At this point in time, Soundgarden would be releasing their last album, Down on the Upside. A combination of their harder sound and a more eclectic style, it was an album so at odds with their iconic sound that it would prove to be their most difficult album to record and promote. The boys of Soundgarden would announce their breakup in 1997 and go their separate ways.
Fast forward to 2012. I’m roughly the same person with a host of new interests (though I don’t care for spelling tests anymore, obviously). Getting a hold of the new Soundgarden record, it’s clear that the band is in the same mindset as me: love for the nostalgic and the cutting edge.
As for the record? 15 years after their implosion, Soundgarden delivered with King Animal. Big time.
King Animal proves to be a difficult album to swallow. It’s a rough amalgamation of all the eras of the Soundgarden sound, yet it’s not merely nostalgic. It’s surprisingly contemporary yet shows the slightest hints of evolution to the band’s sound. In an alternate universe where Soundgarden never split up, I wholeheartedly imagine that they’d still release King Animal in 2012. The music is exactly where fans would expect Soundgarden to be in this point in time. It’s truly like they never left us, and that we just haven’t listened to them in years.
The album kicks off in full gear with “Been Away Too Long”, an explosive launch that soars. The song itself allows room for the band to breathe and show off the individual talents found within the rhythm section, the guitars, and the vocals. Cornell’s voice shows wear and tear over the years, but this rusty feel is appropriate in the track. “I’ve been away for too long/but I never really wanted to stay” seems to be the band’s sentiment that this is no mere cashgrab- Soundgarden would reform only when it was absolutely appropriate. The band is tight and connected, creating a track that has Pearl Jam-esque energy to it, but it never loses that intangible Soundgarden feel.
“Non-State Actor” finds the band in a sort of Audioslave territory, with a clear political message and sense of angst. The combined efforts of Cameron and Shepherd give the rhythm section a much needed boost, with intricate patterns and attacks that Audioslave’s rhythm section could only wish they could do. Crank up the volume in the beginning and feel the two-count kick drum hit you square in the chest. I promise you, it’s awesome.
“By Crooked Steps” and “A Thousand Days Before” flow seamlessly together despite clearly coming from two distinct eras in Soundgarden’s history. “By Crooked Steps” has a distinct Badmotorfinger quality to it, with it’s tricky time signatures and Chris Cornell’s vocals cutting through the track like a wave. It’s unabashedly Soundgarden, and it succeeds wholeheartedly. “A Thousand Days Before” would seem at home on Down on the Upside, and thus feels more eclectic. It’s surprisingly upbeat and exciting, lacking some of the darker edge found on most of the other tracks on the album.
“Blood on the Valley Floor”, by comparison, is HEAVY. It’s a vicious, slow-churning song, full of crunch and snarling attitude. Cornell sings “Once we were the end/ the end of a long road”, perhaps signaling the death and rebirth of the band. It’s 1 of 2 favorite tracks for me, full of breakdowns and bridges that fully utilize the band’s rhythm section and guitars. There is no sense of ego here.
“Bones of Birds” showcase a new element to Soundgarden: that they’re aging, wisened men on life’s journey. The eerie melodies are reminiscent of “Zero Chance” from Down on the Upside, and tell a story of a man tending to his life and family despite running low on time. “Taree” stays on this sense of sentiment, where Cornell desperately clutches to someone he lost. It’s a particularly difficult song to get through, full of evocative imagery (“Crying in your ghost’s smile” is particularly awesome), remorse and regret. Easily one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard all year.
The album hits a snag with “Attrition”. While it’s nice to hear something faster after trudging through 3 slower tracks, Chris Cornell’s vocals are weak by comparison, almost bored by the music. I don’t know if that was his intention, but it doesn’t work here. The album rebounds quickly with “Black Saturday”, a creepy set of promises between the singer and his audience to cut him down if he becomes a burden. While the band hits a cool acoustic tone on this song, Cornell lays down perhaps his best vocals on the album. It’s equally unsettling as it is exciting and mystical, very much in line with something off of Superunknown. The bridge of the song goes down an even darker tangent, lingering only long enough for the listeners to develop a pit in their stomach.
“Halfway There” is clearly from Chris Cornell’s solo career- it’s a good song, but it’s just very removed from what we know as the Soundgarden sound. Hardcore listeners might be forgiven for skipping this track because it’s so different from the rest of the album. As a single, it could carry some weight, but it’s an unusual fit on this album.
“Worse Dreams” basically incapsulates everything I love about Down on the Upside-era Soundgarden. It starts innocently enough with a cool bass line. Soon, the rest of the band joins in, and the track is off the rails, taking great twists and turns. It’s a delight coming in so late in the album’s tracklisting, and first-time listeners won’t see it coming for miles. Very much like their last album, “Worse Dreams” never settles into a comfortable groove; it keeps you on your toes, just changing enough at a fast pace to lock you in.
“Eyelid’s Mouth” is certainly a relic from the Badmotorfinger days of Soundgarden. It has an almost Alice in Chains feel to it, but it doesn’t totally succeed. The song settles into a disappointing rut, but it’s saved by a rather decent bridge that turns into the outro. For some reason, it reminds me of something Cameron and Cornell would have left off the Temple of the Dog album.
“Rowing” closes the album in probably the finest way possible. A slow foot stomp of a beat matched with a unique bassline. Cornell wailing about taking life by the balls. Kim Thayil slowly trickling in layers of snarling guitar. The song sets a cool, attitude-filled vibe quickly, making the chorus a chant that you can’t help but repeat. The song loses its composure and drops the hammer in what might be the absolute coolest breakdown ever: Guitars soar and stab from out of the darkness, the rhythm section kicks in full tilt, and Cornell is left telling us to get our hands dirty and “keep on rowing”. Just before this mood settles in, it quickly drops out into the moody chorus one last time before each band member takes his leave. The song disappears in echoes, and the listener finally knows where the rabbit whole ends.
Soundgarden avoids what every other reunion album seems to be doing wrong these days; there’s no sense of a cashgrab or nostalgia ride here. It’s an honest, great album made by people who love music. It’s a near-perfect set of songs that come together in a wonderful way. The best part is that these layers grow on you after repeat listens; some songs might catch you right away, while others build up on you until you realize “Wow, why wasn’t I listening to this first??” King Animal succeeds in so many ways that it becomes inspiring. I love this album, and if you have even an inkling of love for Soundgarden, there’s something for you to love, too.
THE BREW: Samuel Adams Winter Lager
I know it’s a cop out to pick a beer from a well-known company, but hear me out. For the past few years, I skipped on Winter Lager because its taste was, in a word, lousy. I could never enjoy one until this year. I think it’s the perfect combination with this new Soundgarden record because its a return to form; just like the new Soundgarden record gets almost everything right, Winter Lager gets comes together and tastes better than ever. It’s filling and satisfying, slightly bitter, and incredibly refreshing. Just like King Animal. It’d be wrong to place something foul to match the aggressive music of Soundgarden- King Animal, like Winter Lager, is something that took years to get right, and Goddamnit if they don’t go together great.