Soundgarden – Ultramega OK - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Soundgarden – Ultramega OK

by Jon Burke Rating:7 Release Date:2017-03-10

In the early 1990s, Nirvana happened and suddenly the Seattle music scene blew-up. Because journalists are lazy, a fictional cohesion known as the “Seattle Sound” began to be get tossed around various music publications. The way some members of the press discussed the region’s musical output one would think the rain and pine trees had suddenly begun to musically emote. The very notion that Nirvana was the beginning of Seattle’s scene was itself preposterous and finding any cohesive sonic thru line between most of the 1990s bands was an exercise in the absurd. The closest thing to a coherent Seattle sound came almost a decade before Nevermind when The Melvins, Green River, The U-Men and Soundgarden all played an aggressive style of music that wasn’t quite punk and wasn’t quite metal.

For their part, Soundgarden aspired to be the Led Zeppelin of the Seattle music scene. Though an undercurrent of hardcore punk ran through their early songs, ultimately Soundgarden was a heavy metal band fronted by a singer whose vocal range started in the gutter and peaked somewhere near Valhalla. Soundgarden’s Zeppelin-esque aspirations led to commercial success and, while some of Seattle’s most brilliant artists languished in relative obscurity (Mudhoney, Tad and The Melvins), Soundgarden hit the big time. Having recently obtained the original masters of their early work with SST Records, guitarist Kim Thayil and legendary Seattle musician/producer Jack Endino united to remaster some of Soundgarden’s earliest work, including Ultramega OK. The result is a fine bit of sonic archaeology which has uncovered some interesting elements of Soundgarden’s sound unheard in the original mix.

The album’s opener, “Flower”, comes in with swirling reverb that resembles some of The Beatles experiments with Leslie speakers and sitar. Guitarist Kim Thayil achieved this effect by blowing on the strings of his guitar. In this remastered version, lovely new layers of the feedback hum become audible. “All Your Lies” sounds like Deep Purple on speed with singer Chris Cornell feeding the drug-induced paranoid by chanting: “All your fears are lies!” There is nothing rough or amateurish about either song and they certainly demonstrate the band’s range and influences but neither song is quintessential Soundgarden.

Ultramega’s fourth track, “Beyond The Wheel”, is the first true Soundgarden song on the record and maybe the first true Soundgarden song ever recorded. “Beyond The Wheel” hints at where Soundgarden’s sound would ultimately head: a sludgy guitar/bass grind underpinned by militaristic drums and with Cornell perched atop the wreckage screaming at the heavens. Though slower than either of the opening tracks, “Beyond The Wheel” makes up for the slow pace with a plodding intensity. It’s a magnificent song.

With this new mix, the album’s sixth song, “Mood for Trouble”, stands out as the most powerful track on Ultramega OK. Beginning as an acoustic jam, “Mood for Trouble” suddenly explodes into Thayil wailing on a progressive guitar riff and drummer Matt Cameron finally showing his range with breakneck beat. Cornell’s voice soars above the fray in a lamentation of “the ugly truth for everyone to hear”. The remixing of this track has lessened the upfront intensity of Cameron’s drumming and allowed Cornell’s lyrics to be heard with better clarity. Thayil’s guitar is also more metallic this time around too.

The rest of the album features a mishmash of Soundgarden’s range – almost as if it was a demo tape. “Circle of Power” features vocals by the band’s original bassists, Hiro Yamamoto. It’s a hardcore mosh of a track than spins almost out of control by its screaming conclusion which features Yamamoto wailing “The circle of power/ It’s all the same” over and over. “He Didn’t” and “Nazi Driver” are reminiscent of Black Sabbath while the Howlin’ Wolf cover, “Smokestack Lightning”, is an uninspiring slow-grind. The album’s longest track, “Incessant Mace” is reminiscent of the songs Cornell would contribute to the Temple of the Dog record.

This re-release features some demo versions of a number of Ultramega’s tracks. It also has new liner notes penned by Thayil and Endino which shed light on both problems with the original release and the impetus for this rerelease. While an enjoyable piece of nostalgia, the vitality of this record is unclear. As a showcase of the band’s early promise, and impressive breadth of their sound, Ultramega is an interesting album. Soundgarden’s first great album, however, is Ultramega OK’s follow-up, Louder than Love. While there are some fun songs on Ultramega, the cohesion and purpose that subsequent Soundgarden albums would exude just isn’t present. Thus while there is a little bit of “ultra-mega” to be found, more often than not, this album is just “OK”.

Comments (8)

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While I am usually against bands 're-mixing' their seminal works, this one was a welcome exception. Your review is right on, this is only the tip of the iceberg with these guys.

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Thanks, James! And I completely agree. I was a bit of a Soundgarden fanatic when I was in high school. This record has a couple gems but I don't think Soundgarden became Soundgarden until Louder Than Love. There isn't a "Hands All Over" or "Loud...

Thanks, James! And I completely agree. I was a bit of a Soundgarden fanatic when I was in high school. This record has a couple gems but I don't think Soundgarden became Soundgarden until Louder Than Love. There isn't a "Hands All Over" or "Loud Love" on Ultramega. Maybe "Mood for Trouble"? IDK

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I totally agree...I actually prefer Louder Than Love over Badmotorfinger (gasp!)...but at that point we're really splitting hairs.

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I'm actually with you there too... Badmotorfinger has a lot of sentimental value for me but the punk edge is almost completely gone on that record and now that I'm older I kinda wish they'd been a little less anxious to become a metal band and...

I'm actually with you there too... Badmotorfinger has a lot of sentimental value for me but the punk edge is almost completely gone on that record and now that I'm older I kinda wish they'd been a little less anxious to become a metal band and had kept some punk in their rock.

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Well, 'An Unkind' seems to hark back to those early days and that's always been a favourite of mine.

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Absolutely, that's a great song and an underrated record overall.

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Awesome review! Nice to see care being taken with the remasters.

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Badmotorfinger is their best for me. One of my favourite cover versions is Stray Cat Blues which is on the Jesus Christ Pose EP. It's better than the Rolling Stones original.

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