Classic Album Review



 Mary Had a Little Drug Problem, For Crying Out Loud, This Is Bliss

I may be going out on a limb here when making the grand proclamation that music is a particularly potent form of communicating emotion, an expulsion of abstract human experience into material and social reality.  These emotions aren’t necessarily the basic happy, sad, mad, etc., but are more closely reminiscent of attitudes that reflect an environment which the musician can interpret and which is relevant to their audience.  For example, the first wave of the British Invasion was centered around teenage angst and generally pubescent themes, which spoke to a world of youth who were incredibly frustrated and confused. Punk was a fit of anger at systemic injustice, whether this is political or highly personal; and bands like the Smiths or The Cure tackled robust melodrama.  Of course, these are just a few examples in an infinite pool of artists and movements, which are by no means rigidly separated in their capacity to feel and create. I bring up this fundamental requirement of music, though, to emphasize both the genius and eccentricity of Scratch Acid. As stated above, the relationship between music and its audience demands communication, however abstract. It implies a shared connection between the two.  With this in mind, it makes sense that Scratch Acid has simultaneously remained critically important while missing from the canon of classic American acts. And what’s the feeling that they so effectively make digestible for their audience? Pure discomfort: the sensation akin to the shell of your skin being constantly irritated by the red goop moving beneath it. They sing of constant anxiety which permeates every facet of a being whose existence is an inherent offense.  With their EP, Berserker, Scratch Acid melds young noise experimentation with punk’s insistence on efficacy. Rather than using noise to experiment with everything that could be made, Scratch Acid limits themselves to only what is necessary to explore a life filled with a pressing, constant discomfort. I don’t want to act as if I understand Scratch Acid, or that the pain I have felt in my life has been particularly bad by any means. I have a really difficult time listening to Scratch Acid.  Rather, I want to emphasize that their goal as musicians is to deliver a message which is drastically different from most any other band.  

Scratch Acid was formed in the Austin, Texas of 1982.  They consisted of Steve Anderson (vocals), David Sims (guitar), Brett Bradford (guitar), David Yow (bass), and Rey Washam (drums).  Before recording their first album, Anderson was kicked out while Yow took over mouth duties. There is little information out there about the band’s career (beyond their status as a precursor to noise legends Jesus Lizard) other than their notoriety for highly chaotic performances.  Thrashing loosely on a stage clad in aggravatingly unassuming street clothes, Scratch Acid forwarded a movement focused on transferring the spirit of punk’s alternative bluntness into a new direction. Noise experimentation replaced disciplined hardcore, and punk’s natural decadence became a pragmatic nihilism.  Through lyrical subject matter centering around unstable emotional fits and sludged bursts of screeching feedback, the band affirmed libertine attitudes of romantic validity while also remaining grounded in harsh, modern realities. Their 1987 EP Berserker is caustic mayhem which is as brief as it is intense. It stands at only 16 minutes long with pounding headaches of songs which thud against the front of the head in agonizing marches. Yow’s voice is frighteningly clear in a disturbing showcase of guttural pain; Scratch Acid does not sacrifice recording quality for aestheticism.  Berserker’s quarter-hour is determined to massage every crevice of an incredibly detailed offense. 

“Mary Had a Little Drug Problem” is, I guess, the poppiest song off the EP.  Yes, it does feature compressed chunks of dissonance bouncing between Yow’s strained and extended syllables, but the song ultimately falls into a semi-accessible groove.  It’s with the second track, “For Crying Out Loud” that Scratch Acid fully employ their talent of sonically describing discomfort. A grimy and uneven chord progression disorients a listener who is, at the same time, bombarded with a drum solo interspersed with unnaturally long bleats held by Yow. He sounds as if he’s writing on glass as his voice slithers unbroken over his band’s succinct bedlam.  “Moron’s Moron” finds no natural center in its tottering bassline which Yow stumbles over in a quasi-spoken word delivery. “Skin Drips” adopts a rockabilly uneasiness which mocks the camp of The Cramps with deeply disturbing imagery and commotion, while “This is Bliss” contrives descending guitar and bass riffs with a meandering shred of Yow’s throat. It often sounds incredibly unpleasant. Getting through this EP might be the longest 16 minutes of your life. But Scratch Acid know what they’re doing.  It’s a construction relying on complex, often unspoken truths about the disgusting reality of everyday life.

Scratch Acid was always destined to provide a link between alternativism and exploration of more nuanced emotions.  By shifting focus from simple anger and alienation to more abstract concepts of constant disgust or suffering, the band validated and manifested the human experience in ways unique to only them.  Berserker is most representative of their work.

 -Cliff Jenkins