Thursday, 10 March 2011

Album Review: Ultramega OK by Soundgarden

Soundgarden - Ultramega OK

Year: 1988
Length: 42 minutes
Tracks: 13
Genre: Grunge
Label: SST

This album really represents a musical revolution of sorts. As Punk Rock began to fade in the late half of the 80s there was really demand for a something new but equally raw. With the advance of increasingly heavy music making its appearance throughout rock and metal music, Seattle was proving to be a honeypot for new aspirational bands spearheading the new 'Grunge' genre. Of these bands were Soundgarden, the first to achieve commercial success with their debut album 'Ultramega OK', following two well received EPs in 1987 (Screaming Life) and 1988 (Fopp).

Ultramega OK is often referred as one of the seminal pre-Nirvana Grunge albums and this is certainly true. However I would also put forward the viewpoint that its one of those albums that has successfully helped to define the Grunge genre as a whole. Throughout the album Cornell demonstrates his varied vocal skills, and the music in a nutshell is fun, exciting and most of all very raw. This I feel encapsulates a lot of what Grunge music is all about and this is why for me Ultramega OK is such as classic album.

Among the 13 tracks of loud and very organised chaos (well 12 when you take into account the 'One Minute of Silence' track) the song 'Beyond the Wheel' stands out as a particular favourite for many listeners. Cornell clearly belts out some brilliant vocals which are accompanied by an even more satisfying guitar solo from Thayil. However the lyrics are mystifying and a little vague at best. There is clearly a very apocalyptic theme to the song (which indeed sits between the tracks 665 and 667 - whether or not that is of any actual relevance is debatable.) Perhaps the most accurate translation of the lyrics would be that it is about the circle of life, and to some degree it's hopelessness and agony. We're presented with a description of the human life cycle which is very primitive, a sort of back to basics. We're born, we grow, we live, we hunt, we die. And to an extent, the lack of control we have over that inevitable cycle that is set in stone.

But while 'Beyond the Wheel' is certainly a enjoyable track, I would have to say my personal favourite is 'Mood for Trouble'. It's a lot faster, wilder and well... more fun. The acoustic intro really sets us up for a kick-ass opening that is really loud.  And between all of the chaos we have moments of serene filled with slow guitar melodies which really adds to the balance of the song.

Another classic from the 'Ultramega OK' album would be 'Flower'. According to Cornell, the song is "about about a girl...who becomes a woman and basically invests everything in vanity and then burns out quick." The song famously begins with Thayil blowing across his guitar strings, shortly accompanied by drums and then finally, what really makes the song for me; a truly brilliant guitar riff that forms the backbone of the entire song. This song is also lyrically rather beautiful, following the life of a very beautiful young woman living on "borrowed self-esteem" until "flowers hit her grave." It's only at this point when we look back we see how short-lived, illicit and ultimately meaningless her life was, or as Cornell describes it in his second verse, "a painful masquerade".

However as progressive and exciting as 'Ultramega OK' was and continues to be, there are quite a few songs (or rather parts of songs) that just stick out like a sore thumb. Take for instance the track "Circle of Power" - anyone listening to that song just has to ask what on earth Cornell was hoping to achieve with those messy tuneless vocals for the last half of the entire song. Sure experimental and a slightly mad vocals is a common trait in Grunge (see Nirvana), but in this instance it just sounds awful. But perhaps a more appropriate criticism that expands throughout the entire album is the amount of filler in some of the songs. Incessant Mace is a brilliant example of this, extending over 6 minutes of repetitive groaning and not particularly adventurous guitar riffs or solos.

Yet we cannot be too critical given that 'Ultramega OK' was certainly a pioneering album, stretching the boundaries of contemporary music. Sure Soundgarden arguably made a few incorrect turns here and there, but overall the album is a brilliant listen and I would recommend it to anyone. But be prepared, it's loud, it's unpredictable and sometimes it's a little bit bizarre.

Overall, I would rate 'Ultramega OK' by Soundgarden with 7/10.