Was Soundgarden ever this boring?
In the early '90s, this band was a refuge for music fans who found Nirvana too simple and Pearl Jam too serious. They were the group that everyone went to for Sabbath and Zeppelin-flavored grunge fun, primal screams, charged riffs and complex rhythms.
But now, on the group's first album since 1997, "King Animal" something has gone fatally wrong.
All the usual elements are there - Cornell's wailing, Thayil's propulsive guitar and the group's odd time signatures - but most of the songs are interchangeable, many of them are outright disposable and almost nothing sticks.
I think Cornell's hooks may be to blame, in that they are mostly non-existent. I understand that the group is only comfortable when it's fighting with itself, but this band, in its prime, always had a towering hook in the bag that would eventually emerge from the sludge.
Sometimes, in the best songs, that happens here. In "A Thousand Days Before," when Cornell sings, "You know where to find me," there's an emotional connection made, one which caused me to think, "Hey, there we go. Maybe we have something here." But all the energy gained by that moment is completely lost by the time we get to the dreadful "Taree," which is dead-on-arrival and filler if I've ever heard it.
"Nonstate Actor" has a strong riff but a weak chorus that muddles everything; the riff in "By Crooked Steps" is only so-so, Cornell just seems lost and everything the song has going for it falls apart in the breakdown; and "Attrition" is so sluggish that I would be surprised if no one fell over while they were recording it.
Cornell consistently shouts when the songs are supposed to soar but his vocals are so buried in the mix that they fall flat instead of elevating the compositions. Often, it seems like he raises his voice to hide the fact that there's really no melody.
"Blood on the Valley Floor" is a nice, muscular tune with a sneaky hook that could've been killer if they emphasized it more.
But, as with most things on this album, it ultimately loses its way, crumbling instead of gaining steam.
This mess makes the awful album title ("King Animal?" really? why not "King Beast" at least?) and the ultra-"cool," super-serious album trailer (search for "King Animal trailer" on YouTube) featuring the band members materializing out of thin air in a snowscape with a pile of animal bones nearby seem even more ridiculous.
I'd never heard a Soundgarden album that I didn't like - until now.
CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: "A Thousand Days Before." It would've been a standard SG track in the early '90s, but on this weak effort, it's a standout.
Chris Cornell through the years
From 1988 to 1999, it seemed like Chris Cornell could do no wrong.
Every album Soundgarden released was really good or great, the one-off Temple of the Dog album was an instant classic and Cornell's only solo album during that time period, "Euphoria Morning," was a solid effort that proved there would be life after Soundgarden.
But after Audioslave formed in 2001, things started to go downhill for the great singer and his career has never quite recovered.
Audioslave's first album was a promising start, despite what most critics said.
The CD showcased the band's ability to make rousing pop rock and was all over MTV and rock radio at the time.
It wasn't quite the earth-shattering debut that fans of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden were expecting, but it was modern rock done well and music fans at the time weren't quite aware of how hard that would be to come by in the 21st century.
After an impressive debut, however, the band suddenly became unsure of itself and released the confused, mostly forgettable "Out of Exile," which featured the catchy-but-far-too-poppy "Be Yourself" and not much else.
This song would hint at the direction that Cornell would take for his subsequent pop-friendly solo releases, the painfully drab "Carry On" (2007) and the Timbaland-produced debacle, "Scream" (2009).
The problem with these albums wasn't only the thin material, but the fact that they didn't make any waves in pop music either. So, they simultaneously alienated longtime fans and failed to connect with a wider audience, leaving Cornell in limbo.
Cornell regained some of his credibility with the release of "Songbook" (2011), an acoustic album that featured songs cherry-picked from his long career, ones that showcased just how good of a songwriter he used to be and how good of a rock singer he still is.
The Soundgarden reunion was supposed to be his big return to glory, but the mediocre new album failed to live up to expectations.
Well, at least we'll always have "Louder Than Love."