Review: The rebirth of Soundgarden’s ‘Ultramega OK’


It was 1988, and Soundgarden was movin’ on up. On the strength of their well-received Sub Pop EP Screaming Life (1987), they’d arranged to record an single album for SST as an interim stop before going on to a major label (A&M Records, who’d already expressed interest in the group). Ultramega OK was the result, the band’s very first album, released in October 1988.

But there was a problem. The band worked with producer Drew Canulette, who’d been chosen by their label, and they weren’t happy with how the songs came out. So unhappy, in fact, that after the album’s original release, the band went back to their previous producer, the estimable Jack Endino, and had him remix the record, planning to use the new mix on subsequent pressings. But that proved to be too expensive, and Soundgarden was on to other things by then anyway, working on Louder Than Love for A&M.

But for all their subsequent success (multi platinum selling albums, Grammy awards), the production on that debut album still irked them. To the point that now, nearly 30 years later, they’ve re-enlisted Endino to remix, and added six bonus tracks to the album to boot.

Does it make a difference? Yes! A side-by-side comparison of the original CD and the new release reveals the sound to be much improved. The original mix was somewhat muddy; the new version is crisp and clean, with the vocals more to the fore. The band sounds more like — well, Soundgarden; the band’s misgivings about the original mix were indeed well founded.

As the band’s full length album debut, Ultramega OK offers quite a mix of material. There’s a decided psychedelic feel, most obvious in the opening Eastern drone of the album’s first number, “Flower” (also released as a single). There’s a dip into the blues, with a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” (not a patch on the mighty Wolf’s version, but Soundgarden themselves would likely agree with that). There’s an unexpected sense of humor, with two short tracks of wailing noise entitled “665” and “667” (both numbers being on either side of the supposed “mark of the beast” number 666, so beloved of satanic metal bands and their ilk). The band also “covers” half of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Two Minutes of Silence” (itself meant as an homage to John Cale’s silent track “4:33”), here presented as “One Minute of Silence” (though more like quiet than absolute silence). Clearly, Soundgarden wasn’t just another easy to peg hard rock band. Which is why if you go back and read contemporaneous articles about the band, critics found it hard to describe them. Too punky to be straight metal, but not quite brash enough to be pure punk either. No one had yet applied the name “grunge” to this new hybrid of sound, and Soundgarden took delight in not being able to be pinned down so readily. What kind of label should be slapped on them? Soundgarden’s attitude was: Who cares?

As far as the originals, the band’s in fine form here, and it’s great fun to compare the early demo bonus tracks with the final versions. “All Your Lies,” for example, is just as propulsive, but the demo is a good deal rawer (and stronger for that as a result). There are two demos of “Incessant Mace,” their version of the blues, and while the album version isn’t that different from the short demo, the latter still has more of an edge. The craziness is amped higher on the album version of “Head Injury” though, with vocalist Chris Cornell really letting himself go.

Had Soundgarden worked on the album with someone like Endino to begin with, who knows how their story would’ve turned out? Instead, Louder Than Love was released the following year, and the band really began hitting their stride. Over time, Ultramega OK came to be seen as just a first effort, a rough draft, a record that simply laid the groundwork for what was to come. But the new mix casts the album in a whole new light. If you haven’t heard Ultramega OK in a while, give this new version a listen. You might be surprised.

The album can be purchased online through Subpop.

Gillian G. Gaar

Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel. She was a senior editor at the legendary Northwest music publication The Rocket, and has also written locally for The Seattle Times, The Stranger, and Seattle Weekly, as well as national/international outlets such as Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q, and Goldmine, among others. She has written numerous books, including She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana, Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, and World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story. Follow @GillianGaar on Twitter.

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