When Soundgarden released Ultramega OK in 1988, it came out a day before Sub Pop dropped Nirvana’s debut 7” and just a few months after Mudhoney’s first single. The cultural explosion of “grunge” was still to come, and metal was on life support while the masses were waiting for their whiffs of teen spirit.
Soundgarden themselves were still a few years away from sorting out their own sound. The band—vocalist/guitarist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and then-bassist Hiro Yamamoto—had already released a couple of EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, which fused punk rock with prog, indie and metal, resulting in an interesting, but slightly unfocused amalgam. The building blocks for their 1991 breakthrough Badmotorfinger were there, just scattered about.
The newly remixed reissue of Ultramega OK is a long time coming—the members haven’t been happy with the original mix by Drew Canulette since its release on SST nearly three decades ago. Soundgarden tapped producer Jack Endino, the man they originally wanted to remix the record, to come in and make things right. Which he’s done. Songs like “Nazi Driver” and their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” lurch to life like Frankenstein’s monster, and the entire record feels warmer and more balanced.
As far as where Ultramega OK stands in the Soundgarden catalog, it still doesn’t hold up to later records, but it does contain some of their best songs. “Beyond the Wheel” is a riffy nod to Sabbath, and one of the early tunes that set the group well apart from their more punk-influenced brethren. Although Soundgarden did punk just as well, as “Circle of Power” attests in its spitting two minutes.
While most bands that emerged from Seattle in the years to come shunned the decadence and silliness of heavy metal, Soundgarden embraced it with humor on “665” and “667” (and later with “Big Dumb Sex”), which are more noisy nightmare soundtracks than actual songs. Of course, it helped having a vocalist with the ability to screech like Cornell, while also making it initially difficult to label the band. Perhaps it’s why Nirvana’s Bay City Rollers-meets-Big Black approach on Nevermind ended up being what changed the course of music.
By the time Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, the band was still a bit of an anomaly in the “Seattle Scene.” But they were also arguably the most interesting, and perhaps the most divisive. The reissue of Ultramega OK offers a good reminder of that—it’s never quite metal, or quite punk enough for listeners to settle in. The six demos included on the reissue (called Ultramega EP) aren’t essential, but offer a glimpse into the band’s early Thayil-heavy songwriting.
Kim Thayil’s liner notes should set minds at ease for those concerned that this remix is a way to rewrite history. “It’s important to understand that Soundgarden has no interest in remixing any of our other albums,” he writes. “It should be regarded as a correction. This is how the band understands it, and how many of our peers and friends have wanted to hear it.” In doing so Soundgarden may have inadvertently re-created a monster.