Saccharine Trust’s first album is probably destined to be ever-slept on. It’s certainly identifiable as punk rock circa 1981, though there are either too many or not enough odd, quirky, arty elements integrated into the brief running time of PAGAN ICONS (I consider it an LP, some call it an EP, I think we’re both right) to work up the posthumous froth of a fan base. For many, they will be considered too weird to fit the now codified definition of what punk rock is supposed to sound like. But for others, the Trust will be too committed to the rock tradition, even at this early point, to really qualify under their terms as groundbreaking or vital. They weren’t an “anti”-group like Flipper in form or The Nig-Heist in content, and while assuredly lyrically thought provoking also lacked the aggressive antagonism inherent to many of their peers (label mates Black Flag for one example). Folks could and have called Jack Brewer’s words pretentious and his voice obnoxious, but rest assured I’d never be that uncouth. Brewer’s real function at this early stage is to serve as an effective vocal counterweight to guitarist Joe Baiza’s already distinctive style. Syllables and chords intertwine into a heaving, throttling atonalistic mass that when aided by the functional but worthy rhythm section of Earl Liberty (bass) and Bob Holtzman (drums) forms a vicious and dark whole. Brewer’s throat is so loose and slippery that it essentially eschews the sorta big group sing-alongs that have aided a lot of now canonical punk action, plus the lyrics avoid the kind of chanting brevity or blatant sloganeering that was quite frequent by this point. “I Am Right” is a tightly wound and well executed exception (while subversively serving as a smart taunt toward self-righteousness, punk and otherwise), featuring a group-growled chorus melded to some tightly coiled chug and clang (it was later covered very well by Sonic Youth), and “We Don’t Need Freedom” does edge up against the caustic protest punk that was starting to gain traction in the dawn of the hardcore era, though the thorny ponderousness of the subject matter is much larger and interesting than the so often simplistic political platitudes expressed by a stinky busload of punk “radicals”. This true non-conformist quality is quite an important aspect of their sound and identifies Saccharine Trust not as outsiders searching for the safety of a marginalized peer group (which is what much of the punk movement [any movement for that matter] actually was, and there is not a bit of shame in that) but instead as committed iconoclasts stoked by the thrilling tension and release (i.e. the power) of musical expression. Of course the Trust did find their hail fellows in the SST/New Alliance scene, where they became an integral piece of that network’s puzzling jigsaw. This fine record zips by in a flash of amped up density, with the five minutes of its closing cut “A Human Certainty” making it quite clear that Baiza and Brewer were heading outward from any kind of orthodoxy. Joe wails through a snarling mess of string mulch while simultaneously presiding over a stressed groove, and Jack steps up and matches him with the bruised and bombastic testifying of a wounded soul. This is the track that appeared on THE BLASTING CONCEPT compilation LP and served as my introduction to Saccharine Trust. ICONS fell into my lap almost immediately after that, and at first “A Human Certainty” stuck out like an aching digit from the other seven tracks on the record. 1-7 were hyper-spazzy out-punk, ragged and surly and comely, but 8 felt to me like a sweaty and unstable deconstruction of something I was much more familiar with at my then young age, that being blues based hard rock. This was in no way a boneheaded punk-era piss take, however. It was instead a signifier of deeper rock knowledge that lined these guys up with not only their SST label mates Minutemen and St. Vitus, but also Cali-contemporaries like Dream Syndicate, X and Flesheaters. This sense of history helped Saccharine Trust avoid even a fleeting flirt with faceless generics, and they continued to evolve, underappreciated but unbowed. These days, PAGAN ICONS truly feels like a well formed whole. Its energy and intelligence are undiminished, and if you’re at all interested in the SST saga, this isn’t a footnote, it’s an essential component.