It took us a long time to get a Soundgarden album into our Hall of Fame, but we finally managed in our June 2017 issue, with our Craft Beer Editor-At-Large Adem Tepedelen going above and beyond the call of duty to get the interviews done and the story written. And what a story it is, and what an album it is: buried through a not-great production are the seeds that would later become full-on Sabbatherian grunge, here the band a far more loose, rattling, punk-rock machine, the energy and raw feel to it making it unique in the Soundgarden discography. It’s a charming mixture of what was to be and what was, which happened to be the beginnings of a global phenomenon.
All of which is to say: 1988’s Ultramega OK is awesome. Here’s a look at the songs on the album, rated from worst to best.
13. One Minute of Silence
True story, untold until now: I used to do a radio show and one time played some one-minute punk song… or thought I did. The board was set to “cue,” not to “play,” so, as far as I know, what had actually happened was I just played one minute of silence. I was already on thin ice with the station due to playing insane music all the time, so I just calmly went on the air and said, “And that was ‘One Minute of Silence’ by Soundgarden.” Feel free to use that; not sure what else this track is good for. (With apologies to my old station manager, if he happens to be reading this.)
There are fully three throwaway tracks on this album; they provide slight breaks in the sonics and a bit of levity, but mainly you just want to skip them. Here’s one of them.
10. Circle of Power
Interesting side of Soundgarden’s personality shining through here, “Circle of Power” being a short punk blast, with bassist Hiro Yamamoto taking over the mic for a minute. The song goes from quirky punk to even quirkier slow grunge back to quirky punk. Feels a bit like a toss-off, but I’ve always had a soft spot for these Soundgarden punk toss-off songs, and this one is as memorable and spirited as any.
9. Smokestack Lightning
I always thought it curious how this song is a Howlin’ Wolf cover but you’d never even really guess it was a cover: the riffs are pure Sabbath/southern metal, which of course is because it’s all coming from the blues in the first place. But Soundgarden just do a fantastic job of making it their own here, the riffs a thing of beauty, the performances here just nothing but totally convincing. Only down this low because as a cover it doesn’t have the connection that the originals do; still worthy of many loud spins. Plus, good Watchtower-audition vocals from vocalist Chris Cornell near the ending. Good lord.
8. Mood for Trouble
Interesting song here, with the upbeat rhythm and interesting melodies in the vocal lines just this side of frustrating but mainly great, and the mellow break that starts at 1:27 almost captivating but sort of serving as a foreshadowing of what this band would accomplish with much more confidence soon enough. Cool enough tune, but it’s just a hint of the greatness to come.
7. Head Injury
Cornell’s opening shriek sure demands attention every single time this late-album weirdo-rock cut kicks off; these sort of simple, punk-based rock songs wouldn’t necessarily become Soundgarden’s calling card, but, like “Circle of Power,” there’s a charm to the moments on this album that don’t feel as labored over, as serious, as overwhelming as some of Ultramega OK‘s more serious fare.
6. Nazi Driver
I tend to forget just how weird some of this material is: “Nazi Driver,” for example, skulks and lurks, all toms and restrained drumming and guitarist Kim Thayil ready to pounce from out of the shadows for the first part of the song, then charging with metallic mayhem, backed up with Cornell’s shriek. Matt Cameron puts in an admirable performance behind the kit; it just sounds exhausting trying to keep up with what Thayil is doing sometimes.
5. He Didn’t
The band lean Louder Than Love hard here, this song sounding like something off that album more than anything else on Ultramega OK, Thayil’s riffs expanding out into the labyrinth that he loves to lay down, Cameron trying to find a time signature that fits back there, Cornell wailing over top of it, hoping for the best… Look, the charm is in the youthful chaos, and that’s all over this let’s-just-make-it-work song.
4. Beyond the Wheel
We’re years past anyone having these conversations, but should you ever find yourself butting heads with someone saying Soundgarden shouldn’t be talked about by metalheads, just play them this ultra-heavy Sabbatherian trudge. If Thayil’s incredible guitar work doesn’t shut them up, Cornell’s ludicrously high vocals will. Cameron pounding the hell out of his kit and Yamamoto getting low and dirty on the four strings rounds it off and seals the deal: this is heavy, and this is awesome.
3. Incessant Mace
Us metal guys kinda really like it when Soundgarden go slow, long, and heavy, which they do on kinda-last-song “Incessant Mace,” all 6:27 of it being heavy in tone and spirit like doom metal, the band putting the rest of the album’s strange punk and twisting grunge-rock aside for this sprawling closer. And what a way to go, “Incessant Mace” setting up a promise that the band would most definitely keep.
This is a great song; “Flower” was released as the album’s single for good reason. The opening track showcases three things Soundgarden did so well: huge Sabbath riffs; slower, space-y moments; a mid-tempo forward momentum. Cornell’s understated performance goes a long way on this great song. I always listen to it and imagine what it could sound like with a Badmotorfinger production behind it. It would be massive.
1. All Your Lies
Here, the band show an early ability to write killer vocal riffs that work over a riff that is beating everyone up while Cameron (who rules; Matt Cameron rules) announces to the world that he’s going to be one of the best percussive powerhouses of mainstream music in the ’90s. Love this song, love the almost sloppy, energetic performance, something this band would eschew soon enough for a more perfect approach, which almost suited their sound better. But here, the rawness only adds to the fun. Every second of this song is pure excitement.