Music

Soundgarden: King Animal

In a modern rock world that belongs to fun. and Mumford & Sons, the grunge greats dust off their flannel, unpack their backlog of heavy riffs, and return to the record store racks with their first album in 16 years.


Soundgarden

King Animal

Label: Republic
US Release Date: 2012-11-13
UK Release Date: 2012-11-12
Amazon
iTunes

A few weeks ago a friend and I were browsing through Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart -- as we are wont to do -- and acquainting ourselves with what the kids these days are listening to (this is indeed how I keep entertained -- I am a music critic, after all). We were confounded to discover that American modern rock radio has been inundated with faceless Mumford & Sons soundalikes, late-coming (and lackluster) major label Arcade Fire wannabes, and Alex Care’s insufferable “Too Close”. The sense of adventurousness and excitement (not to mention a healthy dose of out-and-out rocking out) found in abundance during the format’s 1990s golden age was all but absent; instead, we were faced with a chart crowded with dull, unoffensive tracks that were more carefully concocted commercial jingles than proper songs, with nary a gritty guitar tone or expression of genuine anger or angst in evidence. What the hell happened, I thought to myself.

Aside from the latest Black Keys single, the only respite to be found was at the very bottom of the top 20, where Soundgarden’s new a-side “Been Away Too Long” was beginning to climb. True, it didn’t pack the immediate wallop of the reunited Seattle foursome’s prime, but it was a solid enough comeback for a band that hasn’t put out an album since the Clinton Administration. And in the context of modern rock radio’s current playlist, its swaying heavy riffage and squalling lead guitar shrieks sounded downright radical, and certainly hardier than fun. or the Lumineers.

Truth be told, it would’ve been fine if Soundgarden never put together another studio album. Sure, the quartet’s disbandment in 1997 was a shame, the symbolic end of the grunge movement and the last call for a much-admired heavy rock ensemble, but it never felt like the group had left any potential untapped. It had earned its place in the history books by helping to create the Seattle Sound, and after attaining stardom as part of the ‘90s alt-rock revolution, it hit its creative stride, giving the world several stellar singles and full-lengths, and one stone-cold masterpiece in the form of 1994’s Superunknown. Actually, the prospect of a new Soundgarden album was a possible source of concern. Would the chemistry still be there, or would it turn out as disappointing as Chris Cornell’s stint with Audioslave turned out to be? (What happens when you team up the singer of Soundgarden with the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine? You get the lukewarm middle-ground of both bands.)

I can safely say that King Animal (another entry in the band’s proud tradition of ridiculous CD titles) does not sully the Soundgarden legacy. Everything the sarcastic flannel-wearer hibernating inside of us all might hope for is present: Cornell’s weathered yet still sturdy wail, a weighty rhythm section, and an unending stream of detuned riffs in weird time signatures. This time though there’s more of a conventional rockist swagger to the grooves, a leather-trouser sexiness that exudes from the music that the band always steered away from before (and outright mocked in songs like “Big Dumb Sex”). The reason the group moves like this? Simple: it’s having fun. Given how suicidally bleak Cornell’s lyrics typically are, it’s nice to hear how much he and his bandmates obviously enjoy playing with one another again.

Yet, King Animal doesn’t expand the Soundgarden legacy, either. It’s a record that undertakes the kind of brand-maintaining return-to-norm path fellow alt-rockers Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains have embarked upon after returning from lengthy absences. Like “Been Away Too Long”, the rest of the album follows the standard Soundgarden LP blueprint without standing out on its own. King Animal consists of a hefty selection of mid-tempo riff rockers, a few acoustic detours, and clutch of short, speedy numbers to remind listeners that these guys grew up on punk rock -- it’s all the wares Soundgarden fans have heard before, laid out so uniformly that it’s a shock when the super-catchy “Halfway There” rolls around and reminds you of what these fellows can be capable of. A somewhat flat mix doesn’t really help: Soundgarden pivots and parries as usual, but a better sense of dynamics is much needed to make the performances truly pop.

After roughly a decade where new great rock riffs were thin on the ground, this is one album that appears intent on redressing the balance. Listening to Cornell and Kim Thayil spool out riff after riff after riff (regardless of the arguments to be made for the virtues to be found in Cornell’s solo output and Audioslave tenure, none of it possess the same --excuse the cliché -- magic that’s evident when he and Thayil are playing together) is a pleasant reminder of just how inventive and idiosyncratic Soundgarden’s music is, using everything from detuned power chords to doubled single-note line to noisy, dissonant textures to create head-bobbing hard rock that is monolithic yet nuanced. In isolation, songs such as “Worse Dreams”, “Eyelids Mouth”, and the hammering “By Crooked Steps” can be appreciated for their composition, for the way the band deploys and tweaks those riffs to take to listener to unexpected yet logical places. But maybe because Cornell and Co. are older and mellower, nothing on King Animal ever goes straight for the jugular. Back when it did, Soundgarden could keep Nirvana at bay at with one hand and Metallica with the other. Yet there really are no worlds left for Soundgarden to conquer, no great victories left to achieve beyond having a hit comeback album that isn’t crap. So we get music that is comfortably, unmistakably Soundgarden, that in the long view of the band’s career can be described as respectably average.

But for a group of Soundgarden’s magnitude and cleverness, average is still pretty damn good. And it’s an average that makes fun. and Of Monsters and Men look positively feeble in comparison. Even in mid-gear and middle age, Soundgarden is still king.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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