[27 November 2013]
There is a certain raw hunger to early Soundgarden that seems eons removed from the slickly produced, radio and MTV-friendly latter day hits like “Black Hole Sun” from 1994’s Superunknown. However popular that song and album may have been (and they were), Soundgarden still had a dangerous edge that denied any potential accusations of having sold-out. Their 1996 follow-up Down on the Upside featured a song called “Ty Cobb”, which gleefully screamed “Hard Headed! Fuck you all!”, surely befitting of its menacing baseball playing namesake.
However, rocking back to less than a decade earlier, Soundgarden released the EP known as Screaming Life through their first record label Sub Pop. The following year a second EP called Fopp and, finally, their debut LP Ultramega OK. In 1990 the two EPs were combined into the obviously titled compilation Screaming Life/ Fopp, which sees another re-release in November of 2013.
Comparing the raw and experimental Screaming Life to Down on the Upside shows just how far Soundgarden had come in less than a decade. By way of comparison, it would be 16 more years before Soundgarden would release their next album, after their breakup and singer Chris Cornell’s solo work and stint with the band Audioslave.
Screaming Life is pure classic Soundgarden (all songs were written by the band members with no outside help and no covers) with a sonic stretch of noise overtaken by the driving guitar of Kim Thayil, echoed by first bassist Hiro Yamamoto. With Cornell’s grunt, Matt Cameron begins the thundering drums. However, “college “ radio and under-produced that first track, “Hunted Down” may sound, it is Cornell’s vocal octave play that makes this song and the rest of the EP stand out as more than just punk revival (or, as many would call it today, “proto grunge”) and more than a Sabbath-influenced progressive rock song. Cornell begins with a low and explanatory warning “They saw you today as you were leaving, now they run to hunt you down” and ends the song with several high pitched screams that fans today recognize as the same singer, but were almost shocking at the time.
This sound continues into the counterpart of “Hunted Down”, called “Entering”. While the same distant and distorted sounds, indicative of a rushed production (or acoustically unfriendly studio) surround this second song, these only serve to amplify the rawness of “Entering”, which is repetitive and almost scary with Cornell’s mostly ghostly wails carrying over Thayil’s fast-paced guitar leads. “Tears to Forget” practically redefines “raw” for the band with hardcore guitar leads and attacking drums. Cornell’s voice sounds menacing and (aside from the registers he hits) almost unrecognizable as the same singer (it would not be until Ultramega OK that any other band-member would take a lead vocal). When the lyrics are able to be deciphered the song becomes a singalong for the insanely depressed with music as hardcore as most anything by Bad Brains and words as depressing as most anything by Depeche Mode.
The weird experimentation with included styles continues when the band slows down for the plodding, yet sonically rich “Nothing to Say” on which Cornell remains in his higher registers as the guitar, bass and drums grind. While not quite a powerhouse of lyrical complexity, “Nothing to Say” alone proves out the EP’s title of Screaming Life with Cornell’s wails breaking through his own voice for a scary, enthralling listen. And Screaming Life shifts again as the vaguely Native American sounding rock intro to “Little Joe” gives way to Cornell’s high-pitched voice spitting out lyrics in a strange rap about the title character leaving home to “go to where the reptiles roam”. Even considering that this is the band that later created “Big Dumb Sex”, “Little Joe” is one of the strangest songs Soundgarden has ever produced. At the same time, so many varied musical elements are crammed into this wild and raw mix that the song is almost a statement of what the band can do (even if many of these elements never emerged again).
The final track of the first EP (and thus the first half of this release) is “Hand of God” which begins with an evangelist’s speech that gives way to the funky and distorted sounds of Thayil’s guitar, supported by the rhythm section. While much of the promise of the rest of the EP is still shown here, the only thing separating this none-too-keen-on-religion song from a hundred others of the era is Cornell’s unique voice.
Fopp was named for the track of the same name which, as strange as this may seem considering the band, is a cover of an Ohio Players dance number. Nor is this the only cover on the four track EP. “Swallow my Pride”, a Green River remake, is the EP’s second track (the eighth overall on the original compilation, though it appears 10th on the 2013 version).
Cornell’s solo-composed “Kingdom Come” is the only song on the Fopp half of the record that was composed by any member of the band, although the song may as well have been a remake, considering the fact that it sounds, for all the world, like a driving ‘70s arena rock number. While this fits with the Green River song (more than the same era’s Ohio Players song) it is again only Cornell’s voice that makes this song truly sound like the Garden. The new, 2013 package also includes the track “Sub Pop Rock City”, previously recorded (albeit in the same era of the band) for a separate Sub Pop compilation release.
As for the title song, “Fopp” appears not once, but twice on the album (as it did on the original EP, where it comprised well over half of the music). The first version, simply entitled “Fopp” features Thayil at his funkiest, aping the funky disco style of the Ohio Players. This is an unlikely choice for a Soundgarden cover, to be sure, but somehow it works in the right spirit. Cornell duets with himself on the track, handling the low-registered main verse and the high-pitched pre-chorus and chorus to impressive effect, even if the song rather wears out its welcome by the final seconds.
However, “Fopp” returns in the form of the very next track known as the “Fopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix)” which, at six minutes and 25 seconds, is longer than the entire rest of the non-“Fopp” songs on the EP put together. Like Soundgarden’s first version, this track includes synthesized (or sampled) strings and other effects, but this time Cameron’s drums are amplified by drum machine tracks. Strangest of all the sampling doesn’t end with the music itself, but stretches into a speech by Raymond Burr from the 1956 Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! As oddball as this inclusion is, this makes the song much more fun and hilarious as the over-serious words of Burr are implied to be surveying the damage done when someone proceeds to “Fopp me right!” as opposed to that of a giant lizard stomping Tokyo to hell.
Unfortunately, with this new, remastered version of Screaming Life/ Fopp, the “Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix” no longer punctuates the end of the album as it previously did. Instead “Kingdom of Come” and “Swallow my Pride” (previously the EP’s openers, in that order) serve as the final tracks and something is diluted in the arrangement. Luckily in this day of MP3s, the interested listener can setup the playlist any way that is desired.
As for the “remastering” aspect, to be sure, the album sounds as good as it ever has, especially to those of us who memorized every not by way of audio cassettes. However, the new version doesn’t sound markedly different from the previous release on CD, mostly because the songs were recorded tough and rough in the first place. That’s still the real appeal of Screaming Life/ Fopp. These songs are very clearly Soundgarden (if only due to Cornell’s voice in many cases) and it’s fascinating to experience the sonic tools the band employed as their sounds evolved. Is this Soundgarden’s best release? There are surely indie rock fans who will say that it is. However, with strong songs like “Hunted Down” and “Entering”, not to mention the unlikely novelty tracks that comprise the “Fopp” duo, Screaming Life/ Fopp, it’s most assuredly far from a bad release (or rerelease).