HELMET – MEANTIME (1992)

URGE OVERKILL – SATURATION (1993)

June 8th, 1993, Urge Overkill released their fourth album, Saturation, their first for the major label Geffen Records. Undoubtedly, many reading this will only know Urge Overkill as the band that had a hit covering Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994. But the reality is the band had a stellar run of albums and tours, before their inclusion on that soundtrack. The band’s undeniably infectious, edgy swagger was at odds with all around them during the alternative rock boom of the early ’90s but fit the open, eclectic mood of the time like a glove. There is no other band quite like Urge Overkill.

Urge Overkill was formed in Chicago in 1986 by Nathan Kaatrud, who took the stage name Nash Kato (vocals/guitar), and Eddie “King” Roeser (vocals/guitar/bass guitar). The band released its debut EP, Strange, I…, on Ruthless Records in 1986, recorded by Kato’s friend Steve Albini; the EP was a feral blast of punk rock with lashings of psychobilly, hard rock, and post-punk influences smattered throughout.

The band’s first full-length album, Jesus Urge Superstar, soon followed. Again, Albini produced it, with Kriss Bataille on drums. In the short time since the Strange, I… EP, the band had refined their sound considerably. Glimpses of the songwriting prowess and style the band would later become known for bubble to the surface throughout the album, fighting to be heard over the exhilarating punk rock din.

In order to stand out from the slew of punk band’s jockeying for attention on the late ’80s rock scene, Urge Overkill adopted a uniform of matching suits and polo-neck jumpers, into which their ‘UO’ logo was stitched. They topped off this devil-may-care swagger by swigging Martinis from elegant cocktail glasses.

“Back then, there were a million punk rock bands all vying for the same brass ring,” explains Kato. “We needed a fast route to the front of the queue and were constantly hunting for the next big gag. What a great one! This punk rock band can’t play, but they have identical suits and come onstage, shaking and sipping Martinis. It wasn’t a far cry from what we were doing off the clock, but we dressed it up for the cameras a bit, and it worked. Very quickly, people came to expect it of us.”

Their second album, American Cruiser, released in 1990, was produced by Butch Vig and featured Jack “Jaguar” Watt on drums. The band are in wicked form, channelling a raucous bluesy strut mixed with a venomous punk rock attack. The songwriting hooks are more evident and memorable, while the performances ooze confidence and energy.

1991’s The Supersonic Storybook saw them working with Steve Albini again. The addition of Blackie Onassis (real name, John Rowan) on drums was a pivotal move for the band. This change formed their classic line-up and cemented the chemistry that would produce their finest work in the coming years. It’s the point where Urge Overkill fully embraced the electrifying swagger of the ’60s and ’70s rock and blended it with their punk roots to devastating effect.

Kurt Cobian had long been a fan and supporter of Urge Overkill. In many photos and live appearances throughout the early ’90s, Kurt wore an Urge Overkill T-shirt. At his request, Nirvana invited Urge Overkill to open the American leg of the Nevermind tour just as that album was blowing up.

After the Nirvana tour, the band returned to the studio to record their second EP, Stull, in 1992. This EP featured the track “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Two years later, Quinten Tarantino chose this cover for the soundtrack of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction.

As 1993 rolled around, the band jumped from indie label Touch & Go to major label Geffen Records. After the Nirvana tours, Geffen had touted the band as the next ‘great hope’ of the alt-rock boom. They took some criticism for the change to a major label. In 1992, Touch & Go was considered a bastion of indie cred. But Urge Overkill had a punk aesthetic in the truest sense.

The root of punk rock is non-conformity—not political leanings, teenage angst, or the chaotic systematic dismantling of various establishments. It’s about refusing to do what everyone else is doing, and in that regard, Urge Overkill willfully went against the grain. It’s difficult to express how divisive an issue moving to a major label was for a band that had found their feet on underground independent labels. The fear of being accused of “selling out” was the stuff of nightmares and gave many an indie rocker sleepless nights when the majors came knocking.

In reality, many of the independent labels of the time were flat broke. With the rise of alternative rock post-Nevermind, these labels suddenly found the bands on their rosters in high demand. They couldn’t keep up. “Everything we did before Saturation was done for a bag of weed and a six-pack”, said Nash Kato. “There was no rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. With Touch & Go, we had seventy-two hours to experiment and realise a record. We just couldn’t have made Saturation that way.”

So where did these velvet suit-jacketed, highball-drinking, cigar-chomping lounge lizards with raging, classic rock guitar riffs fit into the picture in 1993? “We knew what was going on. We were aware of the musical climate,” recalled Kato. Eddie “King” Roeser adds, “We didn’t want to come off as a self-serious Alice in Chains; that image was in vogue. Nirvana was as dark as it comes, but they had a sense of humour, which was probably why we got along with them.”

For Saturation, the band used the production team The Butcher Bros. (Phil and Joe Nicolo), the founders of Ruffhouse Records, who were hot off-producing Cypress Hill (amongst a slew of others). This move was a significant shift from hitting the studio with Albini and Vig. The brothers keep the production tight and the riffs to the fore.

Saturation opens “Sister Havana,” an infectious barn burner if ever there was one. It’s a ’90s rock classic infused with bristling energy and a beautifully kaleidoscopic take on the rock lineage that came before. Although retro in sound, it’s updated and shot through the canon of ’90s rock flare. It’s a pure adrenaline rush and one of the band’s finest moments.

“Tequila Sundae” opens with a sputtering, sliding guitar riff. The band falls into an airtight groove. Despite the driving intensity and rapid movement, the song oozes laid-back cool. “Positive Bleeding” emphasises the band’s sharp pop-rock sensibilities to the point where it’s easy to imagine Cheap Trick fans having no problem attending the party.

The big sky Americana of “Back On Me” takes a leaf from the Tom Petty playbook. Shimmering acoustic guitars add a percussive sparkle to the dry grit of the stinging electrics. The hooks tumble from the speakers in waves. It’s evident that Urge Overkill was firing on all cylinders in just three songs.

The band are impossibly tight during the upbeat blues rock punk of “Woman 2 Woman.” Meanwhile, the atmospheric shuffle of “Bottle Of Fur” swings with an R&B swagger. The songwriting is eclectic but undoubtedly Urge Overkill. Kato, Roeser, and Onasis have a staggering ability to blend the most essential elements of the American popular music songbook. They understand how to meld disparate genres like R&B, Soul, Punk, and Classic Rock into a heady cocktail of vital sounds. Yet, even though they pull from many sources, their sound is utterly unique and their own.

“Crackbabies” opens with a reflective solo keyboard before launching into an insistent fuzzed-out groove. “The Stalker” cranks the fuzz knob to ten, breaks it off and lets rip—intermittent shards of ear-splitting feedback squall over the lo-fi din. “The Dropout” sees the The Butcher Brothers hand more readily used; it’s a trip into folk-electronica and quite different for the band.

“Erica Kane” is a late-album banger with a slower mid-section. Its blistering guitars lock in tight to Onasis’ four-to-the-floor drum pattern. Wickedly tight stop/start intervals race by. The song’s overall tone and feel resembles something Husker Du might have rattled off in their hay day, minus the upbeat half-time bounce of the middle eight.

“Nite and Grey” offers touches of ZZ Top self-assured blues rock. Urge Overkill deliver songs with one key difference to the prevailing musical winds of the time, the lack of palpable angst. The album is full of adrenalised guitar riffs and hook laden romps, but little of the dark introspection so prominent in 1993. “Nite and Grey” emphasises this approach. By the time we get to the song’s euphoric guitar solos and outro, we’re tumbling on waves of rock n roll positivity.

The album ends on “Heaven 90210,” a beautifully soulful R&B-tinged ballad packed with heartbreaking lyrics and passionate playing. The hidden track, “Operation Kissinger,” appears long after (almost a half hour of silence) the last note of “Heaven 90210” fades. It sounds like a manic fever dream from the mind of Talking Head’s frontman, David Byrne. Sonically chaotic soundscapes weave, twist, and clash but still give the feeling of cohesiveness despite the song’s batshit nature.

Urge Overkill loaded Saturation with clever twists of phrasing and light humour behind the hard rock riffs. They’re a band worthy of the admiration many of their ’90s peers regularly lavished on them. They were a different proposition on the musical landscape at that time. And that’s saying a lot, considering the incredible diversity in the alternative rock scene of the early ’90s.

For many, Saturation is Urge Overkill’s finest album, and it’s easy to see why. Truth is, the band has been solidly consistent throughout its career. The follow-up, 1995’s Exit The Dragon, is, like Saturation, stone-cold perfection. But as with the way of the world and Urge Overkill’s story in general, they were not met with the mass adulation, album sales, and love they so richly deserve.

Forget “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.” Urge Overkill is much more than that one cover song. Delving into their music is a deeply rewarding exercise. It is a rich, colourful, rocking back catalogue of memorable, life-affirming songs. And Saturation is the perfect place to start.

Essential…!