Soundgarden deftly acknowledges its long absence — 16 years between studio albums — with the title of “Been Away Too Long,” the opening track and first single from its new album, “King Animal.” Later, in the glum and stately “Bones of Birds,” Chris Cornell, the band’s singer, main lyricist and rhythm guitarist, intones, “Time is my friend till it ain’t and runs out.”
But time has stood still, rightfully and triumphantly, for Soundgarden’s music, which is still the moody, heaving, asymmetrical hard rock that made the band a trailblazer of grunge.
After the long hiatus — and a preview this year with the reunited Soundgarden’s first new song release, “Live to Rise,” in the film “Marvel’s The Avengers” — “King Animal” simply plugs in and bears down again. The songwriting is largely collaborative, in various combinations of Mr. Cornell, Kim Thayil on guitar, Ben Shepherd on bass and Matt Cameron on drums (who joined Pearl Jam during Soundgarden’s separation). And for much of the album, the band sounds like four musicians live in a room, making music that clenches and unclenches like a fist. Added layers — of guitars, vocal harmony or horns — are for heft, not decoration.
Soundgarden’s gift for the stop-start riff, both slow and fast ones, is back in force with the coiling, leaping, warped blues-rock of “Non-State Actor,” the getting-nowhere grind of “Blood on the Valley Floor” and the zigzagging rise and fall of “Worse Dreams.” So are its moments of quasi-Indian, quasi-Beatles drone, in “A Thousand Days Before” and “Black Saturday,” and the occasional spacey psychedelic interlude.
And the band’s morbid pessimism hasn’t been leavened by the years; the lyrics are full of references to blood, drowning and war. The album’s finale is “Rowing,” a testament to basic perseverance: “Don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing/I just keep on pulling, gotta row.”