Released on Halloween 1988, Soundgarden’s debut record ‘Ultramega OK’ set in place a new musical landscape to many listeners of rock/metal music. Predating Nirvana’s debut record by almost a year, this record paints the picture of a record that essentially set the rules for grunge music throughout the next decade that would soon follow. One thing that has always set Soundgarden apart from Nirvana, though, was the fact that Soundgarden were just as much a metal band as they were a grunge band. There is an awful lot of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to be found in the musical output of Soundgarden and, of course, Chris Cornell always howled and screeched like the ’90s version of Robert Plant.
The opening track on this record is “Flower” and though the title may suggest something delicate, this track is far from it. This opening track sets the tone for this record and really does quite the job in presenting the central musical philosophy for the band for many years to come. Of course, there was a bit of a precedent for this kind of thing, as personified by the Melvins, but Soundgarden managed to take that format and condense it into something that traded in a fixation with the avant-garde for a love of tackling the sick and the grimy with a cheeky grin and snarl. This idea carries itself into the next track, “All Your Lies”. One of the real strengths of this record lies, perhaps coincidentally, in its hodgepodge of musical styles. As mentioned, there is a lot of metal on this record, but there is also a healthy dose of punk rock (which would be a cornerstone of musical influence on grunge, though metal would prove to be an anomaly as an influence). Another undisputed highlight on this record is “Beyond the Wheel”, as Chris Cornell lets loose his signature howl and Kim Thayil proves that he was arguably (there’s no argument) the best guitarist of the grunge era of rock music. It’s when the band break into “Circle of Power”, though, that they showcase the visceral power that encapsulated their early output the best. Unrestrained. Unrefined. Rough. Tough. Anxious.
This debut record from Soundgarden sometimes gets overlooked when talking about the musical landscape of the late-’80s/early-’90s, but it shouldn’t be. This was clearly the work of a band that felt like they had a lot to prove and wasn’t concerned about taking what they believed to be rightfully theirs. This record isn’t without forgettable moments, though. It would take a few more years before they would be capable of putting out an impeccable, spotless masterpiece of a record. The thing that stands out about this record in comparison to later classics ‘Badmotorfinger’ and ‘Superunknown’ is its lack of delicacy. Even ‘Badmotorfinger’ with all of its fury doesn’t carry itself with the lack of care and forthright intensity that this record often does. There is definitely a lot of potential to be found on this early record, much of which would rear itself in much more polished fashion later on down the road. This was, after all, a debut record, and it’s no secret that debut records are often (but certainly not always) sloppy, spotty efforts. They do, however, often give incredible and necessary insight to what a band/artist is going to do later on down the road and it’s in this sense that this record, in its own way, is a mini-triumph.