Too early to be post-hardcore but too uncommon for any simple classification, this Southern California quartet doesn’t try to create a blizzard of noise — they go at it more artfully, but with equally ear-wrenching results. On Paganicons, singer Joaquin Milhouse Brewer tunelessly barks lyrics (as in “We Don’t Need Freedom” and “A Human Certainty”) that aren’t bad in a pretentious mock-intellectual vein; the music is loudly abrasive, but with spaces and dynamics largely uncommon to the genre.
From Brewer’s back cover credit of “vocals and sermons” to his complex, provocative lyrics (despite numerous misspellings on the lyric sheet), Saccharine Trust — guitarist Joe Baiza plus a new rhythm section — takes an abrupt religious turn on Surviving You, Always. “Yhwh on Acid,” “Lot’s Seed,” “Remnants” and “Our Discovery” all contain biblical imagery and religious references, but in a context that obscures and reorients the themes well beyond easy recognition and comprehension. Musically, Sac Trust uses the punk idiom like avant-jazz, liberating the vocals to function semi-independently as blurt poetry, while the band goes through tight formation riffs that are carefully structured but not really within traditional song form. Sophisticated, and engrossing once you get past the daunting attack. (The first two albums were later joined as The Sacramental Element cassette.)
Proceeding further into the experimental realms generally reserved for the “new music” folks, Saccharine Trust attempted something really unusual with Worldbroken. The LP was not only recorded live, it was improvised on the spot! Joined by ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, Brewer and two surviving sidemen rise to the challenge, producing a loose but controlled-sounding jam record (no punks here) that reveals its total extemporaneousness only in the rambling narrative of Brewer’s lyrics.
On the jazzy We Became Snakes, a five-piece lineup (with sax and a new bassist) returns to the old-fashioned way: write ’em, rehearse ’em and then record ’em. Watt produced the record, which again reflects Brewer’s religious fixation. The sonic formula includes syncopated rhythm vamps, lots of riffy solos on sax and guitar and dramatic vocal recitations. Imaginative and far-reaching, if not exactly enjoyable or accessible.
Over the course of 75 gripping minutes (gleaned from a vault stocked with seven years’ worth of live tapes made by machines of wildly differing audio quality), Past Lives paints a slightly more complete (if less stark) picture of Saccharine Trust’s awesome live capabilities as both inward-looking improvisers and kick-out-the-jams shamen. Quick cuts between the two facets that also crisscross chronological “order” create some jarring juxtapositions, but that’s probably the idea. Only one song is repeated from Worldbroken; the seven tracks that are otherwise unavailable include one rare glimpse of the band, (spiritual) lampshades on heads, ripping through Black Flag’s “Six Pack.”
Freed from freedom’s shackles, Brewer created a brooding, cohesive solo album of surprisingly concise, typically dark guitar rock. Though he’s still as obsessive/compulsive as anyone tilling rock-poetry’s increasingly infertile soil, Brewer seems to have toned down his more hysterical Elmer Gantry approach — even when petitioning the Lord. You’ll only wince once (upon hearing the cover of the Doors’ “Peace Frog,” a reprise from Past Lives) over the course of the many listens you’ll need — and want — to breathe in this essence rare.