Soundgarden got its start in 1984 when two Seattle roommates, singer Chris Cornell and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, decided to form a band. Needing a guitarist, they tapped Yamamoto’s friend Kim Thayil, who, like Yamamoto, had moved to Seattle from Chicago. To complete the quartet, the group recruited Scott Sundquist to man the drums. They chose the name Soundgarden after a local park sculpture, supposedly because of the sculpture’s ability to produce disturbing howling sounds. By 1986, Sundquist had exited Soundgarden, paving the way for Matt Cameron to become the group’s permanent drummer.
Clubbing heavily in the Seattle area, Soundgarden built a reputation for their melding of hard rock and metal. After two EPs, 1987’s Screaming Life and the following year’s Fopp, the band was ready to release its first full-length record. Ultramega OK, which came out only a few months after Fopp, demonstrated the group’s punk influences, which would be featured less prominently in subsequent releases. Though hardly a blockbuster, Ultramega OK got the band national attention and did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance.
Leaping from independent labels to a major, A&M, the band released Louder Than Love in 1989. Though a technical advancement from Ultramega OK, it still emphasized brute (some might say crude) force over precise songwriting chops. One of its most memorable songs was “Big Dumb Sex,” a satire of the misogyny contained in most hard rock songs. As the band was preparing to tour, Yamamoto decided to quit the group. Soundgarden brought in a replacement bassist for the tour, but by the time they were preparing for the follow-up to Louder Than Love, permanent bassist Ben Shepherd was brought into the fold.
Soundgarden’s critical and commercial fortunes only continued to rise with 1991’s Badmotorfinger. Though still unquestionably steeped in hard rock and metal, Badmotorfinger showed the band branching out into psychedelic elements and melodic songwriting. While boasting Cornell’s powerful voice and an accessible sound, Badmotorfinger was easily outmatched commercially by two other Seattle groups’ albums that were released the same year - Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind. Soundgarden hadn’t crossed over yet, but they had nevertheless achieved an artistic breakthrough.
The band’s full-fledged commercial explosion didn’t occur until their next record. Musically complex and imposingly heavy, 1994’s Superunknown is the band’s crowning glory, a 70-minute colossus that brought together Soundgarden’s interests in hard rock, metal, pop, and psychedelic undertones for a cohesive set of dark songs. Reaching the top of the American album charts, Superunknown spawned five singles, including “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” which both won Grammys. Selling more than five million copies in the U.S. alone, Superunknown remains the group’s biggest album.
Touring extensively in the wake of Superunknown’s success, the band was exhausted by the time they returned to the studio to record 1996’s Down on the Upside. Rumors of band tensions were prevalent and while Down on the Upside generated strong sales and hit singles, those accomplishments were dwarfed by what Superunknown had achieved. In April of 1997, Soundgarden announced they were breaking up.
On January 1, 2010, Chris Cornell announced that Soundgarden would be reuniting. “The twelve-year break is over and school is back in session,” he wrote. “Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”
With a monstrous 16-year hiatus between Soundgarden’s last studio release and their newest offering King Animal (2012), the group’s fans likely had a lot of questions leading up to the return of one of rock’s most beloved bands.
The biggest question of course lies within their sound. While it helped mold a new revolutionary genre back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, does it have staying power for a whole new century? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” King Animal settles in nicely, picking up right where the band left off so many years ago and taking care of a lot of unfinished business. King Animal displays the familiar sounds of Soundgarden without getting too caught up in nostalgia, something that can often handcuff bands trying to rise up from the ashes of their past.
The band, feeling revitalized and a sense of renewal with this disc, see their reunion as more of a rebirth rather than a comeback, and the creative inspiration fueling that sentiment can be felt throughout King Animal. Although the vibe is undeniably Soundgarden - moody, groove-laden rock - the band’s evolution is on full display, as Chris Cornell’s iconic vocals and Kim Thayil’s guitar work provide a sonic power that’s impeccably complemented by the rhythm section of drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd.
The first single, “Been Away Too Long,” serves as a battle cry for the band’s triumphant return. It’s almost as if the band wrote a personal letter to their fans with Cornell’s brooding confessions, “I’ve been away for too long” and “I only ever really wanted a break.” Sixteen years may have been too long indeed, but Soundgarden is clearly back.
With everyone in the band with at least one writing credit to their name on King Animal, the songs cover a lot of sonic terrain from the explosive drums that fuel “By Crooked Steps” to the ethereal swirling vocals on “Blood on the Valley Floor.” The haunting lingering vibe left by the intricate web of sound spun in “Bones of Birds” is arguably one of the disc’s best offerings, followed by the visual soundscape painted by “Taree.” King Animal offers up an eclectic mix of visual imagery, thought provoking prose, all set to a timeless soundscape of flourishing rock with a reminiscent feel.
In music, it’s sometimes difficult to stand the test of time but Soundgarden proves with King Animal that they did not reassemble simply to preserve a legacy but to build on one that’s already firmly in place.