Monday, October 15, 2007


SACCHARINE TRUST - We Became Snakes LP (SST/1986)
There's a bunch of bands who shoulda made the grade w/ my Top 100 Albums Of All Time list a while back - y' know, perhaps there shoulda been Gun Club's Miami LP, Fugazi's Repeater, Fairport Convention's Liege & Leaf, the first Big Boys LP, Junior Kimbrough's Sad Days Lonely Nights, Happy Nightmare Baby by Opal, the first longplayer by Universal Congress Of, Cabaret Voltaire's The Mix-Up... hell, I'd even be tempted to throw Springsteen's Nebraska in the mix - and Saccharine Trust's We Became Snakes is surely such an entry which was hovering around that list and cut at the last minute for no particular reason. They remain musical and sentimental faves. I first dug this back in high school, buying it secondhand (as I did all ST releases: there's just no love here!), but then found a second life after my brother wound up staying w/ singer Jack Brewer for a week in LA sometime 'round December 1990. How did that happen? I guess that if you're the only Australian Jack Brewer/ST fan in attendance at one of his gigs - and make such a fact drunkenly known to the rest of the audience - it's likely that a nice guy like Jack will put you up for a week as you backpack your way around the country. My bro came back w/ some autographed goodies from the man (look, when you're 18, it's 1990 and you're from Australia, an autographed Saccharine Trust LP rates as the most priceless example of countercultural exotica one could possibly own, OK?), along w/ some Jack Brewer Band discs on New Alliance (both LPs are well worth searching out) and I'd set it in stone that I would remain vocal as the most loud-mouthed band-toting Saccharine Trust fan in the southern hemisphere for all time. I remain that man.
The band are still around - and have promised me an album for a dog's age - though their high watermark remains this LP, the last they released before their long break throughout the '80s/'90s.

I wrote this shit about 'em 10 or so years ago...

"The name SACCHARINE TRUST probably doesn't mean much to you, but for all the early, seminal SST groups, ST would have to rate as one of the best, and certainly the most underrated by critics and audience alike. Throughout their lifespan (roughly 1980 to '86) they recorded music of unequalled terror, beauty and expression, even though I'm sure their sales history never reached above miniscule. Such is the way of the world, though I'll attempt to do them some posthumous justice, nevertheless.

The core of the band (LA natives, by the way) was essentially vocalist Jack Brewer and guitarist Joe Baiza, with a succession of drummers/bassists going through the group throughout its history (though Tony Cicero stuck behind the kit for a long time). Their sound was an unholy combination of Brewer's gutteral, emotional growl spat into '50s beat poetry, and Baiza's simply awesome six-string plucking, which, much like Ginn, combined the best of John McLaughlin's spidery twang and Hendrix's dense, wah-wah'd power chords. The term "jazz-rock" may conjure up images of fusion-hell to you, though much like Miles Davis' '70s period, early Tony Williams' Lifetime, or perhaps even the MC5's assimilation of Albert Ayler and Chuck Berry, ST combined the two with a punk aggression and aesthetic that still make them stand out as innovators today.

First in the essentials list is their debut 12" EP from 1981, Pagan Icons. Like many of their SST compadres, their debut finds them still in a very primitive, elementary stage, and this time the extreme rawness really works to their advantage. Sounding essentially like an arty punk band - perhaps a mix of Wire's minimalism and Television's sense of expansion (if you can imagine a mixture between two such opposites) - the EP is classic concoction of primal, near juvenile angst ("Mad at the Company", "Community Lie") and a more ambitious - dare I say - existential yearning ("A Human Certainty", "We Don't Need Freedom", "Success and Failure"). One crit even hailed Brewer as LA's new Jim Morrison in the rock-poet stakes.

As with many of their label partners, the stark primitivism was also soon lost and a sense of musical exploration took over. Skip the excusable Worldbroken LP from '85, a totally improvised shambles with Mike Watt temporarily stepping in on bass, and head straight for 1984's fantastic Surviving You, Always LP. This is where the "jazz-rock" elements have come to the fore, and the results are awesome. I don't tend to have "guitar heroes", and I don't intend on having any in the future, though if anyone come close, it's Joe Baiza. The sheer howl and wail he tears from his strings is incredible, and why on earth he isn't some sort of modern-day Guitar Player god just goes to show how severely retarded that little boys club is. The sound of 'Trust at this point is hard to pinpoint: the rhythm section is like a hopped-up be-bop combo, Baiza does his Hendrix thing on guitar, Brewer spits out his words in an enounciated manner somewhat reminiscent of Mark E. Smith, and the combination evolves into something not unlike a more progressive and fully expanded Minutemen. As would more so be the case, some brass slipped into the line-up, and the Doors' comparisons would be buffered more by a cover of their own "Peace Frog".

Last but not least was their final statement, 1986's We Became Snakes. This time sporting some snappy full-colour cover art, ST went the whole hog with a full-blown psych-jazz-rock killer, and the fact that this never broke them into a bigger audience in even the independent music scene of their day says more about people's taste than I ever could. "Effort to Waste" is simply an instant classic, and the general feel of the entire album - a sense of desperation in a decaying city, redemption only coming through their music - is so spot on I'd be tempted to say that ST were truly one of the great "lost" bands of the '80s. The production is much cleaner, and so if you can imagine a sparser Miles ca. Bitches Brew or Ornette with his Prime Time combo being fronted by an American Mark E. Smith, you might understand what this sounds like. Soon after this they called it quits, Baiza formed the incredible Universal Congress Of (more on them later) and Brewer released some great solo discs on New Alliance, though also worth searching out is the posthumous 1989 double LP live collection, Past Lives, which gathers good quality live recordings of the band in their prime (even abolishing Black Flag's "Six Pack"). Rumour has it Saccharine Trust has been playing the odd gig around the LA region again of late, and whether that's true or not, they were true originals, and like the best of them, their music - at the time scorned for being uncool in a sea of angry white-boy rock - has weathered well into the '90s, as their musical references - Miles, Ornette, Hendrix - have found a more appreciative audience in the rock underground."

Now, that's probably either the biggest load of waffling bulltwang you've endured in your short life, or, perhaps, you relate and also acknowledge the genius of Saccharine Trust. Either way, I will continue to gain/lose your respect w/ my incessant pro-Saccharine Trust rantings for eternity.

6 comments:

MRow said...

Here, here! Snakes was their pinnacle, for sure. It got the most play of any of their recs on college radio in LA - at the time, I just sorta assumed they'd go nationwide with kids everywhere, like Black Flag and The Minutemen did a couple years earlier. But that didn't happen. They stayed in LA and just sorta languished, then split. Sooooo happy they saw fit to get it together again a decade later.

Yes, the production on that record was/is sweet. It's so evocative, I can easily imagine all manner of growing/dying/changing SoCal city madness unfolding outside the recording studio they were in.

And I thought I would be the first to point out Mark E. Smith comparisons in my next NeareSST Relatives post! You beat me to it, 10 years ago!

MRow said...

Oh and I ain't got anything against Worldbroken, nothing at all in fact. There's a Byron Coley review somewheres that once did it justice. Yeah, I'd reckon that to be an important (albiet lesser) piece in the larger SacTrust puzzle.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Howsabout a follow-up celebrating The Great One is Dead - it's amazing how many people are oblivious to its existence...

Dave said...

MRow: That was written 10 years ago; nowawdays I LOVE Worldbroken. I think I kinda liked it back then, too, but probably felt silly about praising EVERYTHING that every SST band released. Now I feel no such guilt.
I STILL have never heard The Great One Is Dead. I cannot find it anywhere to purchase, and Jack has been incredibly slack in sending me a copy. Before I croak, I will hear it.

Anonymous said...

I must admit my copy of TGOID is the only one I've ever actually seen... If all else fails, you can get it direct from the label:

http://www.hazelwood.de/saccharine/record_great.php

Anonymous said...

One of the best shows I ever attended was Saccharine Trust (this was around the time We Became Snakes came out) and The Sun City Girls at the Mason Jar in Phoenix. Sonic Youth was also on that bill, but completely overshadowed but the opening acts. Somewhere I still have that recording...