No matter how good Soundgarden’s comeback album is, trying to forget about Chris Cornell’s disastrous attempt at collaborating with Timbaland on 2008’s Scream is next to impossible. It was and forever will be one of the most embarrassing footnotes of any band’s career. That it happened to Soundgarden, the seasoned hard rock vets who survived the trappings of grunge and became one of the most successful alternative acts, is probably why it’s so unforgettable. I mean, come on, Cornell’s shrieking metal god voice singing over slick, poppin’ R&B beats? Sometimes I throw on “Ground Zero” when I’m feeling low, just because it’s guaranteed to make me giggle uncontrollably.
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
So, Soundgarden are back with their first new album since 1996’s Down On the Upside. They’ll never return to the blinding riffage and demonic howls of Badmotorfinger, so give up that wish immediately. They have aged (Kim Thayil is 52), become rich and famous, broken up acrimoniously and, shit, recorded with Timbaland, Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam (who Matt Cameron is also the full-time drummer for).
Lead track/single “Been Away Too Long” sums up their hiatus candidly, as Cornell sings “I only ever really wanted a break” over some blitzing guitars, coming as close as it gets to sounding like 1991 again. “By Crooked Steps” keeps it loud, and “Attrition” sounds oddly like the stoner riffing of Queens of the Stone Age — who influenced who, I don’t know. Not bad, not bad.
Of course, King Animal, like its two predecessors, drags a bit in places, with downtempo mulch (i.e. “Black Saturday,” “Halfway There”), and also lacks some of the radio-friendly numbers they were known for (“Black Hole Sun,” “Outshined”). But it sounds like they’ve only been gone for 15 months, not 15 years. And that’s all you can really ask for from a reunion anymore. Soundgarden fans, be grateful.