Few people, least of all the band themselves, would have bet on Soundgarden ever reuniting to record 2012’s King Animal. Fans and critics alike believed the grunge icons had split permanently after 1996’s Down On The Upside, and, as late as 2005, vocalist Chris Cornell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that a reunion “could possibly change what up to now seems like the perfect lifespan of the band.”
Eventually, though, the reformation Soundgarden had repeatedly shunned crept up on them when the four band members met in 2009, ostensibly to sort out reissuing their back catalog and a range of new merchandising. In January 2010, however, Cornell surprised and delighted fans with an unexpected Twitter post reading: “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”
Originally, the band had agreed simply to relearn the old songs and play some gigs, but after they finished a lone new song, “Black Rain,” for A&M’s Telephantasm retrospective, it was obvious that the chemistry was still there. As guitarist Kim Thayil told Guitar World: “If you get the four of us in a room together, we’re not just going to whip out “Outshined.” We’re more inclined to plug in and start pulling out some new riffs.”
Before long, those newly-minted riffs and fresh ideas coalesced and, in the spring of 2011, Soundgarden entered Seattle’s Studio X with producer Adam Kasper (Aerosmith, Pearl Jam) to begin work on a long-awaited comeback album. The band was energized by the promise of their new material, but the sessions needed to be flexible, with studio time worked in around reunion shows and also Cornell’s solo acoustic Songbook tour, which ate up much of the late spring and early summer of 2011.
In the end, the sessions spilled into 2012, with King Animal finally seeing the light of day on November 13 that same year, through Vertigo Records. The additional time meant that fans required a little extra patience, but they were soon rewarded when they heard opening track “Been Away Too Long” barrelling out of the speakers. Propelled by a suitably muscular Thayil riff, the song’s title felt like a reaffirmation of vows, while its tight, tetchy, and brutal Sensurround production made it clear that Soundgarden was very much back in business.
The songs following in its wake bore classic Soundgarden hallmarks, from the unorthodox time signatures of “Non-State Actor” and the Captain Beefheart-esque “By Crooked Steps” to the monolithic, downtuned riffage of “Blood On The Valley Floor” and the exploratory psych-prog epic “A Thousand Days Before.” Visceral rockers such as “Attrition” and “Worse Dreams” also gave Cornell ample opportunity to shine, but he really came into his own on the somber, hymnal ballad “Bones Of Birds” and the wonderfully strange, loops- and beats-infused “Rowing,” on which he repeated the song’s kiss-off line (“I don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing”) with a mantra-like intensity.
The critics agreed that Soundgarden had made a vital return to the fray, with Rolling Stone proclaiming King Animal “a cool beast to encounter in 2012” and an insightful review in UK broadsheet The Guardian noting that the album “makes a surprisingly good fist of plugging back into the sound that made them the moodiest and heaviest of the Seattle grunge bands.” Commercially, the record also made waves, debuting at an impressive No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and enjoying strong sales and high chart placings in a variety of territories from the UK to Australia and Germany.
King Animal thrust Soundgarden right back into the heart of the mainstream, and it’s their epitaph by default purely because it stands as the last album they completed before Chris Cornell’s untimely death in May 2017. Whether you dub it a creative rebirth or a fantastic swan song depends on your standpoint; either way, King Animal is a terrific record on its own terms, enhancing Soundgarden’s already formidable reputation.