Register Forgot login?

© 2002-2019
Encyclopaedia Metallum

Best viewed
without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
or higher.

Privacy Policy

The paradoxes don't end with the name. - 71%

hells_unicorn, February 24th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1988, CD, SST Records

Being an unabashed fan boy of all things South Park, the author of this review can't help but reminisce on said show's most beloved stoner Towelie when delving into the early mythos of Soundgarden. It is particularly relevant when dealing with their moderately well received 1988 debut LP Ultramega OK, an album title that was likely inspired during a cannabis-steeped songwriting session given its cryptic wordplay, though also one that proves to accurately portray a collection of songs that struggle to present a unified sound. Coming fresh off a couple of EPs on the infamous grunge label Sub Pop and an appearance on the 1986 Deep Six split with The Melvins, these Washingtonian up and comers would find themselves seeking somewhat greener pastures (marijuana pun intended) with SST Records, another heavily punk oriented label founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, but also one that was home to doom metal extraordinaire outfit Saint Vitus. All was set in motion for the sludge, heavy metal and stoner rock trifecta of proclivities in this band's nascent sound to come together, but then, Soundgarden got high and just sort of wandered off.

This isn't to necessarily say that this band scored a dud at their first go at a full length studio offering, but there is definitely an overt sense of disunity at play here that is often brushed off as eclecticism. Like a camera that has yet to come into focus, the general picture of this band's signature amalgam of Black Sabbath's muddy darkness, Led Zeppelin's spacey psychedelic atmosphere and old school rock vibes, and the attitude laced punk tendencies inherited from the prototypical originators The Stooges up through Dead Kennedys is present, but often bereft of poise and clarity. Many of these songs seem to come and go, being quite listenable when thudding and murmuring away, but largely drifting off into the haze of forgotten melodies once reaching their conclusion. Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell's riff work ranges from competent emulation of Tony Iommi's early Sabbath style to a jumbled and bordering on pedestrian mishmash of punk and metal ideas, the former's climactic guitar soloing being largely sidelined and the latter's signature vocals coming off as more of a schizophrenic crossroads between vintage Robert Plant wailing and a borderline competent hardcore shout.

When things are on point, a bird's eye view into where this outfit would hit their stride in the early 1990s manifests, though the ongoing search for an identity here leads to a few bizarre stylistic dead-ends. The opening nod to Zeppelin with a muddy, Budgie-like trudge "Flower" presents a dark and cynical anthem that showcases some of the exotic elements of "The Immigrant Song" superimposed on a sludgy ode to the premature decay of beauty. Similarly successful ventures into the depressing world of sludgy pessimism include a competent nod to Sabbath's brand of antiwar anthems set to a punishingly slow tempo and a glass-shattering rendition of Plant and Gillian out of Cornell, and well as a smooth bluesy nod to Iommi's primordial jamming grooves in "Smokestack Lightning". However, the picture of competent doom emulation gives way to a couple of headscratcher moments in "Nazi Driver" and "He Didn't" that are so choppy and clumsily preformed hybrids of Sabbath and Zeppelin rocking with a more jazzy feel that they come off as comical, possessing a few solid riffs that are obscured by sloppy drum work and overbearingly gritty vocals.

While half of this album seems to be stylistically affixed on territory that would be further explored down the road, there are also some quirky stylistic interludes into various areas that further confute this album's already tenuous sense of stylistic unity. A handful of punk-oriented rockers in "All Your Lies", "Head Injury" and "Circle Of Power" filter in and out of the track list at random intervals, each one being competently preformed but feel a bit out of place, and latter of the three foregoing Cornell's gritty yet on point vocal approach for bassist Hiro Yamamoto to take the mic, and the result is an out of tune and generally sub-par mess of rambling yells and shrieks that make Johnny Rotten sound like Placido Domingo. Barring a bunch of brief ambient noise tracks and a lame closing song consisting of amplifier noise dubbed "One Minute Of Silence" (this was much funnier and more effective when done on Type O Negative's October Rust), the biggest stylistic question mark comes in the form of "Mood For Trouble", which can be best described as a driving acoustic meets electric nod to Rush's 2112 with a side-order of The Who and Blue Cheer, arguably the best song on the album, but also quite out of place.

If this is approached more along the lines of a compilation rather than a singular LP with a stylistic center to speak of, which is the way a sizable chunk of Soundgarden's discography should be approach anyway, it actually works fairly well. Though often times a latter day fan of this outfit who was first exposed via a few songs off of Superunknown or the somewhat more obscure yet reasonably known 1991 predecessor Badmotorfinger will have a hard time recognizing this as the same band, the overall appeal that this album will have to someone inclined towards messy sounding, muddy hard rock with a metallic gloss is definitely present. It goes without saying that this band would get better with subsequent efforts, particularly after shedding most of their punk rock affinities with the exodus of Yamamoto, not to mention getting a producer that would work to hone their sound a bit so that various rhythmic anomalies and out of tune notes that give this album a bit more of a demo character of sound would be weeded out. It's more of a historical note than something that hits the sweet spot of a timeless classic, but worth at least one listen to any stoner, sludge or hard rock fans out there.