Was there ever a singer so in need of reforming his old band as Chris Cornell? His career’s been a head-scratcher of mythical proportions: the opener was the fairly brilliant pop-rock album Euphoria Morning, created with the band Eleven, but then he moved on to a slew of wildly uneven soundtrack items, a disastrous Timbaland collab where Cornell’s trademark operatic sex-bomb vocals seemed to barely figure in the mix at all, and, oh yeah, Audioslave, a supergroup project that managed to mix together two of the most raucous bands of all time and somehow compromise their way to airbrushed MOR product. This was an album that needed to happen, even after 16 years.
Realizing this, the group have made a lot of noise of the PR variety about King Animal picking up exactly where the last album, 1996’s Down on the Upside, left off. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. By the time that album dropped the Soundgarden formula had already played itself out, with Cornell moving towards dark pop-rock that didn’t need Kim Thayil’s wall-of-sludge guitars or Matt Cameron’s tribal drums to be effective. As such, the opener, “Been Away Too Long,” is a try-hard anthem that’s way too eager to please, an approach not helped by the continuing decay of Chris’s voice. Make no mistake, it has its balls out, but the grunge is gone, replaced by generic stoner-rock riffs that better suit his now-limited range.
This shouldn’t even be a problem, though; what made Soundgarden stand out from the flannel-and-Docs crowd in the first place wasn’t their crunch or even their wail but the haunting quality of Cornell’s original psych-pop songs, twisted into existential nightmares by the band and made flesh by his occasional howl. Either the band or their label have misread that history, however, and Cornell, who kicked his substance abuse problems and left his first wife behind in the interim, doesn’t sound like there’s much at stake. New tunes like “A Thousand Days Before” and “Worse Dreams” work best because they feature the little psychedelic touches left over from Superunknown and the group’s secret weapon, bassist Ben Shepherd, and “Non-State Actor” would almost recall the glory days of of “Spoonman” and “Outshined” if the anguish weren’t phoned in. Sometimes you keenly feel the lack of Cornell’s upper range, as in the otherwise dramatic “Bones of Birds,” but the biggest rewards are the big surprises, “Black Saturday” and “Halfway There,” the closest the band comes to the quiet drama of Euphoria.
Chris has always been one of those talented people who needs collaborators to inspire him, but Soundgarden was the place he was supposed to be able to stand more less on his own — look closely at the band’s writing credits and you’ll see he’s responsible for most of the greatest moments. He may have more he wants to say, even now, but he’s probably not going to get there by going back to 1996 and a band that no longer knows how to draw it out of him. The wreck of alternative rock is going down, Chris; get out before you drown.
Impact: 65. The slow stuff sounds like the solo career Chris should have had.
Innovation: 52. The fast stuff sounds like an Audioslave reunion, not a Soundgarden one.
Integrity: 70. Guess which there’s more of.
Casablanca, Fiction, Universal Republic
By contrast, few musical acts have been less eager to please their constituency than Crystal Castles. A famously isolationist and even combative Canadian duo, they begin with a gimmick — wistful electronic pop songs created from ’80s arcade samples — but soon realized that approach wouldn’t sustain a career. So on their second, also untitled album, they switched to a French house sound, simplifying their surroundings and revealing that their sense of atmosphere was no chiptune fluke. Since then, however, singer Alice Glass has undergone some sort of emotional trauma – true to form, she gives no specifics – and that necessitated the recording of this also untitled third album in Warsaw, walling themselves from the world, throwing out all their old keyboards and recording everything live to tape. III, or whatever you feel like calling it, is one of the densest and most impenetrable albums of the year; Glass used to do a good job of cloaking her depression in the mix, but here she tries to get lost entirely. Imagine if the group’s spiritual forefathers in The Cure had started out with The Head on the Door and worked their way backwards to Pornography. That’s where Crystal Castles are hiding out now.
Ironically, the new approach makes that fortress seem like a really painful place to be. No arcade noises, no abrasive synthpunk tracks, like II’s “Doe Deer,” just vast, echoing caverns of doom, with Glass behind a wall of mirrors screaming something she doesn’t want you to hear. The titles say it all: “Plague,” “Wrath of God,” “Sad Eyes,” “Child I Will Hurt You.” Even when she tries on affection in tracks like, er, “Affection,” or surrounds herself with altered-voice golem on “Kerosene” and “Violent Youth,” she still sounds like she’s drowning in her own anomie.
Too distant even for dream-pop, too cold for the radio, too structured for EDM, and not experimental enough to be rock, III finally succeeds in making Glass just another sound effect — after all, instruments aren’t expected to answer for themselves. It’s worth holding this album’s hand for a while, if only because the hooks eventually sink in, but only hardcore fans are going to take the time to wander into the group’s labyrinth to discover whatever it is they’re trying so hard not to say. This is the sound of the Eurodisco abyss gazing back into you.
Impact: 72. Glass screams from a distance now, which is bound to make her personality less noticeable.
Innovation: 68. Warsaw got them in touch with their angst, but it didn’t do much for their muse.
Integrity: 77. The point never reveals itself, but the hooks do. It’s almost enough.