In some ways, it makes perfect, obvious sense that Ultramega OK is now out on Sub Pop. In a new edition, just released Friday, the first album from Soundgarden is now no longer an SST album but, finally, a Sub Pop album.
Given the sound of this band in 1988, this sounds logical, right? It's like a fix to one of history's mistakes. But to do this little feat, the band had to get their hands on the tapes and turn them over to Jack Endino for a new mix of the record too. What we're hearing here is meant to be the band's "real" version of Ultramega OK, the version they've always wanted to present, and the verdict is, simply, that the record now sounds more like Nevermind than anything else. I'll leave it to you to answer whether that's a good thing or not. I guess it is; Soundgarden, even before Nirvana, broke the idea of grunge to the mainstream, crossing over to the "Headbanger's Ball"-crowd as a sort of metal act. What Soundgarden did here was to make the prospect of pummeling music more palatable to alt-rock fans. And now, on this new mix of Ultramega OK, the results are a clearer mix, a more obvious sonic punch, and less a muffled roar, to put it simply.
Now, in this new edition "Flower" sounds even more glorious, less a diminished scream and more a triumphant one, the start of the entire grunge wave in some way, while "All Your Lies" is revealed to be perhaps more fantastic than I had remembered it being, all Sabbath "Symptom Of The Universe"-style riffs cranked even faster. Elsewhere, the bad intent of "Beyond The Wheel" is still apparent, Chris Cornell's vocals perennially the work of one of the great vocalists of our generation. The metal edges of "Circle Of Power" are now even sharper, original bassist Hiro Yamamoto's vocal turn still an impressive performance, while the brief punk-y "He Didn't" serves as sort of reminder of drummer Matt Cameron's knack for delivering rapid-fire bursts of stick-work alongside the thundering material elsewhere on Ultramega OK. As you go through these tracks, and admire the new Jack Endino mix, you can't help but think how clear things sound now. And that's an odd thought when remembering that this was, for many of my age, the first big grunge full-length release. Still, with Cornell on the mic, and Kim Thayil working his wizardry on the axe, Soundgarden were never going to be relegated to being just another act from some sub-genre coming out of the Northwest. The collective talents of these players made Soundgarden if not the first important band of the grunge movement, at least the most enjoyable one.
That sounds harsh to those others acts in that first burst of this stuff but, remember, for many of us growing up near cities with scenes already -- harDCore, anyone? -- the quick rise of grunge was a thing to be skeptical of. Yet, and I can remember this clearly, the release of "Flower" and the rest of Ultramega OK was the thing that made me raise my eyebrows and drop my cynical pose and consider that maybe, just maybe, there was some great stuff being made up there in the Seattle area.
This new edition of Ultramega OK is filled out with some bonus cuts, including demos of "Incessant Mace", "Head Injury" and other cuts from this album and era. They shine a small light on the process behind the creation of these earliest of Soundgarden numbers and help make this the definitive edition of the band's debut album.
While one could argue that Louder Than Love was a more consistent release, that statement doesn't diminish the importance of Ultramega OK in the history of American alt-rock, and as an example of the sound of this genre. Really, grunge starts here even if so much of this doesn't sound particularly grunge-y. If anything, new listeners will have a hard time pinning this one to the sometimes sludge-y sounds of this genre's early years especially since this new Jack Endino-mix of Ultramega OK is so sharp, clear, and crisp.
[Photo: Charles Peterson]