Jet Black Berries

  • Jet Black Berries
  • Sundown on Venus (Pink Dust) 1984 
  • Desperate Fires (Pink Dust) 1986 
  • Animal Necessity (Restless) 1988 
  • New Math
  • They Walk Among You EP (415) 1982 
  • Gardens (Brain Eater) 1984 

Under their original New Math handle this ominously entertaining five-man psychedelic outfit from Rochester, New York is alternately dirgelike and urgent on They Walk Among You, a five-song 12-inch that delivers ponderously intoned poetic lyrics over thick rock backing. Heavyweight bass and drums support reasonably normal guitar and pulsing organ for a complex blend of sounds that defies easy description. “Invocation” pays stately homage to the devil and would probably impress Roky Erickson; the magnificent title track recalls (if no one else does) Atomic Rooster’s “Death Walks Behind You.”

Gardens offers seven new imprecations and tales of madness. The music is grander, more open and less malevolent; New Math reins in the rhythmic power a wee bit and moves Mark Schwarz’s organ drone and Kevin Patrick’s lead vocals to the fore. The effect may not be the one desired, however, as the band sounds more accessible but less striking this way. Still, it’s the work of a talented, unique group with sicko ideas.

Without undergoing any personnel changes, the quintet became the Jet Black Berries and issued Sundown on Venus, an offbeat concept album that almost carries off an attempt to meld two familiar cultural idioms, science-fiction and westerns. The music is polite California cowpunk (think Green on Red or Dream Syndicate, occasionally colored by faint synth noises); the lyrics describe showdowns between bad hombres and masked men in space suits. (A brief run-through of Ersel Hickey’s obscure classic “Bluebirds” neither aids nor impedes the effort.) Unfortunately, the Berries don’t bother to develop their imaginative notion musically, letting what might have been a fascinating record drift into mediocrity. (The cassette release adds six bonus tracks — also included as a one-sided disc in original pressings of the LP — of similar rock, a surprising slice of Gary Glitter singalong pop, the old group’s dirge-pound rock and even another version of “They Walk Among You.”)

Produced with likable simplicity and directness, Desperate Fires is a taut album of western-leaning rock-pop that hardly resembles the group’s early work, but makes a convincing case for the validity of this new direction. Patrick’s voice suits the material; unassuming songs like “Kid Alaska,” “The Flesh Element” and the rockabilly “Sweet Revenge” pack a wicked kick.

Animal Necessity continues the Berries’ (now a sextet) appealing casual affair with musical styles of the American Southwest. Fans of Green on Red, Giant Sand and Naked Prey should especially appreciate the album’s dusty melodies, snappy country drumming and roughly strummed electric guitars. Guitarist Gary Trainer and drummer Roy Stein (whose songwriting is developing nicely) both contribute plainspoken tunes with occasionally offbeat lyrics.

[Ira Robbins]