Soundgarden: Screaming Life / Fopp (Remastered)

Experience the primal scream and dance pop (!!!) of early Soundgarden.


Screaming Life / Fopp

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2013-11-25
UK Release Date: 2013-11-25

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).


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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