September 26th, 1995, URGE OVERKILL released their fifth album, Exit The Dragon, on Geffen Records. There is so much to love about rock ‘n roll. It can be the soundtrack to a particular time; forever etched in one’s memory, it can uplift, rip you apart, and help you heal. By 1995, Urge Overkill had been a band for nine years; their brand of rock ‘n roll was highly stylised but as emotionally charged as any plying their trade at that time. On album after album, song after song, they spat out uplifting rock music that was heartbreaking and joyous.
But like many rock ‘n roll bands, Urge Overkill are a largely overlooked and misunderstood group. Some know them as a devastatingly powerful unit who channel classic rock elements through a paragon of ’80s and ’90s alternative rock; to others, they are nothing more than “style over substance”, and to the rest of the population, they’re not known at all.
That’s not to say Urge Overkill didn’t get their moment in the sun. Some bands strive to achieve one big “hit,” and those who do land a “one-hit-wonder” invariably find it difficult to convince the public they have a meaningful back catalogue, despite any attempts to allay those misconceptions.
This became all too familiar to Urge Overkill. The band spent years toiling in relative obscurity working on their irony-filled presentation of rock ‘n roll, only to gain fame and then sabotage themselves at the 12th hour through drug busts, band member infighting, and label indifference from Geffen Records.
“Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” was written by slick crooner Neil Diamond. The song first appeared on his 1967 album Just For You and reached number 10 on the pop singles chart that same year. In October 1992, Urge Overkill released a six-track EP entitled Stull. It was the band’s final release on the independent Touch and Go Records before signing to major label Geffen Records.
They named the EP after Stull Cemetery just west of Lawrence, Kansas. Urban legends state that the cemetery is one of the seven portals to hell. While that’s debatable, what’s undeniable is that the Stull EP’s cover of “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” opened a portal for Urge Overkill’s step into the limelight, albeit two years later.
In the meantime, after the release of the Stull EP and the band’s follow-up album Saturation, Nirvana invited Urge Overkill on tour as their opening act. Kurt Cobain was a long-time fan, and Nirvana was active in helping their favourite underground bands get some recognition by hand-picking opening acts like The Breeders, Teenage Fanclub, Melvins, Shonen Knife and Urge Overkill.
At this time, Nirvana had revolutionised rock music; they were the hottest ticket on the planet. Extensive dates on the Nevermind tour exposed Urge Overkill to a new audience craving the fresh sounds of the underground.
In 1994, the band’s version of “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” was picked up by Quintin Tarantino for his latest blockbuster Pulp Fiction. The song featured prominently in the movie and its accompanying soundtrack. While faithful to the original, Urge Overkill’s version of the Neil Diamond classic was updated to suit the ’90s slacker mentality. The song shot up the Billboard charts and achieved heavy rotation on radio and MTV. Urge Overkill’s presence was at a dizzying high.
Against this backdrop of newfound fame, the band entered the studio to record their 1995 album Exit The Dragon (The album’s title alludes to the moment you remove a heroin needle from your arm). Choosing to work with producers Phil and Joe Nicolo also known as The Butcher Bros. at Studio 4 in Philadelphia. The songs they compiled for Exit The Dragon were darker than those on their previous album, Saturation. Filled with musings on mortality, purity, honesty, and purpose, these songs plumed some vast depths while never losing sight of its mission to rock.
With interest in the band at an all-time high, the release of Exit the Dragon was hotly anticipated. The band’s 1993 major label debut, Saturation, had a loyal underground following; that album’s riotous punch and stellar uplifting songwriting had garnered them a new following. Much to the dismay of those looking for Saturation part two, Exit The Dragon was a darker, less polished, and less immediately accessible album than its predecessor. Few people understood the band’s pristine three-dimensional knack for combining power pop, rock n’ roll, and darker, more emotive pieces.
In hindsight, the disappointment was misplaced. Exit The Dragon is a tour de force. It’s an album of profound depths and soaring highs. The production’s rawness only amplifies the subject matter’s abraded nature. Regarding accessibility, Exit The Dragon, like all great works of art, doesn’t show its true colours immediately; repeated listens help to unfurl the true depth of the album. The songwriting hooks are razor-sharp and enduring.
Another part of the problem may have been their newfound fanbase, who arrived with the sudden success of “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon.” Expecting an album similar to that song, they needed help understanding Urge Overkill’s modus operandi, and Exit The Dragon offers little help in that regard. Instead, they were presented with a raw, searingly confessional album of songs steeped in classic and alternative rock with nothing resembling Neil Diamond-like crooner schmaltz.
The album’s opening gambit of “Jaywalkin'”, “The Break,” and “Need Some Air” rocket past with an irresistible energy. The grooves are laid on thick, the hooks are memorable, and the performances are top-notch. “Jaywalkin'”, lists the failings of its protagonist over a wickedly slippery groove: “I’m the evil that’s in this world, I’m the evil in you. I’m the evil that’s in this world; There’s not a damn thing you can do..”
“The Break” was released as a single; it’s bone dry production makes the flourishes of psychedelic guitar in the middle eight sound intense and memorable. “Need Some Air” kicks off with a false start; the band kicks into the intro, one of the guitars hits a bum note causing everyone to stop, a nasal voice can be heard saying “sorry”, and without missing a beat, they’re up and running again, only this time keeping the show on the road.
The next single from the album, “Somebody Else’s Body”, is a spry rock song; its lush instrumentation of jagged stabbed verse chords give way to an expansive open chorus. Its sharp, bluesy electric guitar licks are augmented by jangling acoustic backing. Nash Kato sings, ” Nothing from a schoolboy taught me right from wrong, Education’s dead, I knew the answers but had all the questions wrong..”
The blistering double-stop guitar attack that opens “Honesty Flies” suggests we’re in for a barrelling rocker, but the song unexpectedly takes a more low-key measured approach during its verse. The exquisite dry guitar tones sound as vital and menacing as ’70s-era AC/DC. “This Is No Place” opens with sheets of indistinguishable noise before Blackie Onassis’ drum pattern introduces a simple but contagious two-chord chugging guitar riff. Kato’s passionate vocal delivery is a highlight: “She can’t remember coming home, And I don’t know her name, She woke up early now she’s gone, Here we go again. This is not my way; Guess I lost my way.”
“The Mistake” drifts by in a slacker haze. “Take Me” is a stunning slab of great American rock ‘n roll. Imagine Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers meets The Replacements, and you’re in the ballpark. “View Of The Rain” is a breathtaking ballad of genuine depth and beauty. “I don’t try anymore
‘Cause only booze improves with age. I don’t fight anymore, But sometimes my fists clench up in rage..” Flourishes of Beatle-esque instrumentation and emotionally charged lyrics make this a stand-out track on an album full of indispensable moments.
“Last Night/Tomorrow” oozes a melovant cool. “Tin Foil” continues the emotional arc of the album’s second half. Roeser’s vocals are beautifully rendered and laced with extraordinary feeling. The song perfectly walks a tightrope of being incredibly sad and rivetingly joyful all at the same time. “Monopoly’s” hook sounds like steel drums over a tight rock beat; Kato sings, “It’s you and me on the Monopoly board; you land on the block where I got three hotels, But it’s not like you want me to win.”
“And You’ll Say” is almost Thin Lizzy-esque before “Digital Black Epilogue” closes the album with a curveball: a duet between Nash Kato and an uncredited female singer. Their voices work incredibly well together; splashes of strings weave in and out throughout the arrangement before it intensifies into a wall of sound and ends in a sea of noise and distortion.
With Exit The Dragon, Nash Kato, Eddie “King” Roeser and Blackie Onassis created one of the most beautiful, neglected and misunderstood albums of the mid-90s. After Exit The Dragon, the wheels would fall off the Urge Overkill wagon. Kato and Roeser started feuding, resulting in Roeser leaving the band. They limped on with Kato and Onassis before Roeser re-joined in 2004, only for Onassis to depart.
In 2011, sixteen years after Exit The Dragon, the band released a new album, Rock ‘N Roll Submarine, followed by the album Oui, a full eleven years later, in 2022. Both comeback albums are fantastic and worthwhile, they regularly flash the old UO magic. But, the undeniable chemistry that made Exit The Dragon is timeless. It’s Urge Overkill’s finest album, and that’s saying a lot when you have albums with the quality of Saturation in your back catalogue. On Exit The Dragon, the band distilled all that made them great into an impeccable collection of songs.