A title like “Been Away Too Long” seems a little on-the-nose for the first song on a band’s first album in 16 years, but it’s appropriate where Soundgarden is concerned. Frontman Chris Cornell was in and out of the limelight while Soundgarden was broken up, so perhaps he’s addressing his old bandmates more than the general public when he declares, in his signature searing wail, “I only ever really wanted a break.” During the interim, Cornell busied himself with endeavors both forgettable (Audioslave) and regrettable (the Timbaland collaboration Scream). Fortunately for anyone with an interest in hearing Cornell’s divine sinus blaring like a siren over Kim Thayil’s guitar detonations, King Animal’s lead single and opening track is right in Soundgarden’s sweet spot—a three-minute wave of sonic upheaval that’s nonetheless firmly rooted in the band’s history and hard-rock history at large. They aren’t rewriting the playbook; “Been Away Too Long,” like the rest of King Animal’s highlights, is cataclysm as comfort food.
Soundgarden revisits the full spectrum of its career throughout King Animal, rarely venturing outside those boundaries. The first few tracks function as a blustery reminder of this band’s power, channeling the hard-hitting thrills of the group’s pre-grunge years far more effectively than its Avengers soundtrack single, “Live To Rise,” did. Midway through, the album starts to sound like the work of the alternative-era hitmakers that birthed “Black Hole Sun” and “Blow Up The Outside World,” less aggressive, but no less distinct. Only the closing number, “Rowing,” a slow-burning chant built on a rolling bass part straight out of Tool’s wheelhouse, could be labeled as an experiment.
In spite of the lack of innovation, King Animal rarely feels like a legacy act halfheartedly retreading its past glories. At times, the record even comes close to matching those glories; highlights like “By Crooked Steps” and “Bones Of Birds” will be welcome additions to the live show as long as Soundgarden’s reunion rolls on. There are misfires, too; “Non-State Actor” is a limp imitation of the cyclical caveman stomp the band perfected on bangers like “Spoonman” and “Loud Love,” while the acoustic-driven “Halfway There” has the stink of a leftover from one of Cornell’s side projects. More often, though, King Animal affirms what a potent formula this band established. It’s neither a trainwreck nor a masterpiece, but it stirs the senses in all the right ways.