Soundgarden – “Ultramega OK”

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve lived in the Seattle area for a long time, including during the “Pre Grunge Era” when we didn’t have a name other than punk rock for what was being played around here. Cellophane Square was an indie record store that carried both new and used stuff, and it was in the mall across the street from my school. I used to go in there a lot while killing time before my bus would arrive, and that’s where I started buying Sub Pop 7″ singles. And one of my favorite bands at that time was Soundgarden. I had the Screaming Life and Fopp EPs on vinyl (the originals, not the combined re-release… <sigh>… I wonder where those are today…), and also Ultramega OK. I spent some time in Pittsburgh in 1989 and bought Louder Than Love on CD as soon as it came out, which pissed off my roommate who was way into pop and country to no end. He wasn’t ready for Chris Cornell. I was so pissed that I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go see them at some small dive club when they were in town there, and I was too much of a puss to go by myself. A major missed opportunity.

For a long time I thought Badmotorfinger represented Soundgarden’s peak, but over the last couple of years I have seen the error in my ways. Badmotorfinger is a really good album, but it lacks the impact of Louder Than Love and Ultramega OK with their raw power. So when I got back into vinyl and went on my first record shopping trip in over a decade, one of the albums I came home with on that first day was Ultramega OK. An album so good I broke my own rule about not buying something on vinyl that I already have on CD (oddly enough I’d sold or lost my original CD copy years ago and ended up buying a replacement used copy in, of all places, some record store in Amsterdam about five years ago, which strikes me as really, really odd).

Chris Cornell is a man possessed on this album, young and with an insanely powerful voice that could hit high notes like nobody’s business (if you don’t believe me, go play “Beyond The Wheel”…. no seriously, go do it… I’ll wait….). Thayil shreds it on guitar in ways that are difficult to comprehend, while the heaviness of Yamamato’s bass and Cameron’s drums harken back to early Black Sabbath and were a precursor to what came to become that grunge sound. There were bands that were more punk rock than Soundgarden; but there weren’t many bands doing sludgy, heavy punk like they were. Ultramega OK might represent the next stage in evolution from Iggy and The Stooges’ Raw Power. It was heavy and in your face and frankly they didn’t care if you liked it.

“Beyond The Wheel” brings heavy, sludgy weight that holds you down a makes you feel like you’re trying to move underwater; on “Circle Of Power” Cornell sounds like some type of deranged spiritual revivalist/country singer having a vision in front of a crazy rock band; “665″ is all weirded out backwards masking and shit; “Flower” is psychadelia; and there are covers of Howlin’ Wolf and John Lennon (OK… calling “One Minute Of Silence” a cover is a bit of a stretch, though that’s how it’s credited). Ultramega OK is all over the place. It’s hard to talk about having a favorite track, or which song is “the best,” because it’s all so different and, frankly, so damn good. ”Flower” was the A side on a single that came in both a 12″ and a 10″ format and features another Ultramega OK song on the reverse, “Head Injury,” along with a non-album track, “Toy Box.” And “Flower” certainly is a candidate for the best song, with it’s great opening build up that kicks in with a killer riff, though I might lean just a little more towards “All Your Lies” or “Beyond The Wheel.” Not like it really matters, because there isn’t a dog on the record.

Somehow I’ve never managed to see Soundgarden live. This seems odd to me, since all my friends from that time certainly have. I’m not sure where I went wrong, though this late in the game I’m not sure if I even want to since my real interest is in the band’s first three albums and not much after that. Maybe someday I’ll get the chance. But until then, I’ve got Ultramega OK on vinyl to keep me company.