Soundgarden’s “Ultramega OK” rocks harder than ever
The seminal Seattle grunge legend’s debut release receives the refurbishment it deserves. | Courtesy of pitchfork.com
Soundgarden’s reissue of their groundbreaking debut record feels like a labor of love from a matured band revisiting their roots.
feral aggression of punk rock and a dash of noisey stoner rock
When it first released in 1988, a year before Nirvana’s “Bleach” and two before Alice In Chains’ “Facelift,” “Ultramega OK” broke from the nebulous stoner-rock template many local bands were playing with at the time and began streamlining it while other bands rode drowsy fuzz into riff-filled lands.
Soundgarden channeled stripped-down rock’n’roll through punk and proto-sludge, breaking out of the local scene and forcing ‘80s glam metal to acknowledge the end of their monopoly on middle America’s perception of heavy music. Their first record showcased a complete 180 from the pristine production of the previous decade, embracing influence from “My War” era Black Flag and fellow Seattle natives The Melvins.
As one of the first pure examples of what everyone would come to know as grunge rock, “Ultramega OK” combines some of the flash of ‘70s hard rock with the feral aggression of punk rock and a dash of noisey stoner rock for good measure. While other bands gained more fame than them, Soundgarden’s approach still rings true as a major influence in the development of one of Seattle's biggest musical exports.
When bands revisit their old material, two problems arise. Firstly, most releases are fueled more by a desire for money than artistic vision. Secondly, most longtime fans of a band fell in love with the original sound of the album, which almost ensures their negative reaction to any changes made to it. Luckily, the reissued “Ultramega OK” feels like a genuine effort on Soundgarden’s part to do what they wish they did as a younger and less experienced band.
Fans of the raw, unadulterated aggression of the original mix will certainly notice differences right away in the iconic riff of “Flower.” Improved panning betters atmospheric passages, while the tightened production makes the song’s groove that much more lethal. Soundgarden only continue making “Ultramega OK” rock harder by upping the production value.
While Soundgarden stands apart from the norms of ‘80s rock, they never completely embraced visceral angst in the same way Nirvana did. With the blatant exception of the guttural “Circle of Power,” “Ultramega OK” features Chris Cornell’s relatively traditional hard rock phrasing, timbre and register. What separates his delivery from those that came before them becomes his eerie melodic choices over instrumental grit. This juxtaposition reaches a particularly high point with “Beyond the Wheel,” as Cornell’s falsetto cries soar over dirgey rhythm and sludgy guitar chugs to a simultaneously powerful and dour effect.
Soundgarden’s evident love for their past work ultimately elevates this reissue above other bands’ attempts in that they show respect for what made their songs good in the first place while they enhance their sound. The slick opening groove of “Smokestack Lightning” exemplifies this perfectly in that it maintains the same earthy punch even with the cleaner sound, making the fuzzed out riff that much more compelling. Every cut receives proper treatment in this way.
Then, the six demo tracks at the tail end of the reissue prove Soundgarden’s respect for their raw beginnings. Instead of adding demos of every song, these seem like prime choices by the band to remind listeners these guys began as spirited youngsters throwing a wrench into mainstream rock. By highlighting their unfiltered energy after the doctored songs end, Soundgarden shows an uncommon amount of confidence in their old material.
Soundgarden does reissue the right way. This decade-defining milestone of rock music sounds exponentially better, while also allowing listeners to see both sides of the coin.