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You can hardly blame some music aficionados for having an aversion to the word ‘reunion’. After all, the word tends to conjure up visions of aging rockers going through the motions in half-filled arenas in an attempt to earn some semblance of a cheque again, vainly trying to recapture their glory days by touring behind what tends to be a half-considered album.
Thankfully, none of this is the case for the sixth Soundgarden release King Animal, which provides concrete proof that the band still has the musical chops and grit to cut it in the modern musical environment.
Coming off the momentum of reunion dates last year, Soundgarden wasted little time in putting together a new album, the band’s first studio effort since 1996's Down on the Upside. Expectations, admittedly, were high, especially among the band’s hardcore fans. But Soundgarden worked hard on this release to quell any fears remaining about their ability to still put out quality, consistent music.
Opening with the obvious-but-true Been Away Too Long, frontman Chris Cornell summons up the grunge energy of the band’s Badmotorfinger days, backed by lead guitarist Kim Thayil’s strong riffs. In the band’s latest incarnation, there’s very little of the old days to miss – something not a lot of bands can get to truthfully lay claim to after a 16-year absence.
Perhaps because the band is finally living out their long-awaited reunion fantasies, it seems that dreams have become a central theme of the album. One of the album’s strongest tracks, Halfway There, showcases the band’s always-solid songwriting, asking one of life’s great questions – what ‘making it’ truly means (‘Is that what our dreams have become?’). Continuing the dream theme here in a darker vein is Worse Dreams, a throwback to the Soundgarden that seems to continuously ask existential questions in song form. However, here they’re able to ask those proverbial questions without the teenage angst that would make their style of brooding seem dated.
Whether dreaming as an ongoing theme is a pointed, deliberate one that sees the band mulling over their long absence (and how the musical landscape has changed dramatically in the post-post-grunge era) is ambiguous, but the remarkable thing about Soundgarden is that they’re a band who’s able to pick up where they left off without sacrificing quality. It’s not a claim many bands can truthfully make.’Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing/I just keep on pulling that rope’, Cornell sings in the album’s closing track, Rowing, adding that ‘stopping is dying’. We don’t know what direction comes next for the band, either, but we’re fully on board as we watch where the musical tide takes them.