June 25th, 1996, Screaming Trees released their seventh studio album Dust through Epic Records. It’s well chronicled that the making of Dust was a difficult time for Screaming Trees. Previous album Sweet Oblivion was released in 1992, by 1995, the band still hadn’t recorded or released a follow up to that album, which was their most successful.
When Dust was finally released in 1996, so much had changed.
By 1992’s Sweet Oblivion, The Screaming Trees had already released six studio albums and two EP’s in a timeframe of just seven years. They were prolific trail blazers on the nascent alternative rock and grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest. Come 1992, the band were riding high on the grunge explosion and were perfectly placed to emulate the success of their peers. Sweet Oblivion single “Nearly Lost You” had catapulted them into the lives of music fans around the world due to it’s inclusion on the 1992 soundtrack for the Cameron Crowe film “Singles.” After a relentless tour cycle for that album, few predicted it would be 1996 until the world saw another Screaming Trees album.
There had been attempts to record a follow up, but each time the band compiled demos or entered the studio, the sessions fell apart. There was even an aborted attempt to cut an entire album in 1994. In the meantime, the euphoric innocence of the initial explosion of alternative rock and grunge, that had enraptured pop culture, had taken a tragic, dark turn with the suicide of Kurt Cobain.
It would be disingenuous to try to list the reasons why this gap in productivity occurred, only the protagonists truly know. To capitalise on their burgeoning popularity, Screaming Trees needed to release Dust in 1993 or 1994. Instead it arrived in 1996.
One obstacle that is well documented was Mark Lanegan’s battles with addiction, which were becoming all consuming. In his memoir “Sing Backwards and Weep” he recalled the birth of Dust.
“I sporadically got together with my Screaming Trees bandmates and we began the painful process of trying to write another record. It was going to take a group of fully developed great-sounding demos before Epic would support us working again since we’d wasted time and money the last two times they’d taken a chance and booked us into a studio. Slowly, day by day, we hammered away until we had a small, raw collection of songs that showed some promise. But what had come almost effortlessly in ’92 was now once again toil. I was responsible for much of the trouble due to my giant heroin habit and the demands it made on my time and energy…”
And despite all this, Screaming Trees delivered an album of devastating beauty. Dust leans hard into the psychedelic blues, gritty folk and hard rock brilliance of their earlier albums. Its oceanic depths are breathtaking, and even now, almost 30 years later, it continues to reveal new inflections to the listener. An old cliche is you have to suffer for your art, there is no evidence that suffering truly does create better art, but Screaming Trees make a strong case.
The album opens with “Halo Of Ashes” with its eastern, sitar tinges, rolling drums and shamanic vocals, it’s a life affirming re-introduction to the world of the Screaming Trees. It immediately rams home that rumours of the band’s demise were far too hasty. This is a vital track, full of incredible musicianship from guitarist Gary Lee Conner, bassist Van Conner, drummer Barrett Martin and a stunning vocal from Lanegan. The song’s lyrics match the pathos of the music beautifully “She wears a halo of ashes/Specter on the wind/Waits on me so patiently/I no longer can pretend…”
First single “All I Know” follows, again courting a strong psychedelic feel, the song has a joyous groove and bounce that belies the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation. Its infectious chorus will be left ringing in your head long after the song fades out. “Look At You” is a beautiful “folk” ballad, shot through with sadness and reflection. Beneath it’s simplicity lies a sophistication only a few of the band’s contemporaries could match. Again the song’s lyrics strike a chord “And when I look at you/I’ve got a second chance/Really need to take it now/One by one they fall, it always breaks me down..”
“Dying Days” opens with a lone acoustic guitar and Lanegan’s formidable voice, before ramping up into a barrelling rocker. There’s a crashing, effervescent abandon to all the performances on the album. The band is in top form. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers Benmont Tench plays piano, organ, electric piano and mellotron throughout and is an inspired pick to compliment the band’s sound.
Second single “Sworn and Broken” is a masterpiece. Delivering the kind of heartland americana Bruce Springsteen could only dream about achieving in 1996, this song perfectly displays what set Screaming Trees apart from the pack. Packed with emotion, a heart-wrenching melody and an infectious sadness, “Sworn and Broken” is a song for the ages.
“Witness” blasts from the speakers, a powerful track propelled by Barrett Martin’s stunning drumming. In a scene that showcased a wealth of incredible drummers, Barrett Martin sits at its apex. Throughout the album he adds an intangible energy and an emotional heaviness to every song. Complimenting Gary Lee Conner’s exploratory, psychedelic guitar passages with flavours of world music percussion.
Brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner are Screaming Trees glue. Gary Lee is a creative, driving force. With a guitar style and songwriting vision unlike anyone plying their trade at that time. His understanding of modal structures foreign to rock n roll gave Screaming Trees their unique sound. Matched with his blistering attack, always impeccable tone and incendiary stage antics, Gary Lee Conner was the heart and soul of the band.
Bassist Van Conner passed away in January of 2023. In his eulogy to Van, drummer Barrett Martin said: “Van was one of the greatest bass players I ever had the honour of playing with, he and I had a deep swing in our rhythm section, a kind of “battleship swing” is how I would describe it. I will always miss that about him, his giant swing…” which sums it up perfectly. Both on record and live Van added the “swing” to the Screaming Trees sound.
Then there’s Mark Lanegan. What more can be said about his voice and song-writing..? He possessed a once in a lifetime howl, full of character, grit, dexterity and real emotive grace. In 2001 Mark spoke about about its origins.
“I dunno, I think it’s hereditary, my father has a real sandpaper voice, It’s almost like he can’t get through a word without it being broken up three or four times, even a one syllable word. (And) I smoke four packs of cigarettes a day. It wasn’t on purpose, on the early stuff I sound just like the kid I was, and in time it changed into this different deal.”
Mark Lanegan passed away at his home in Ireland in 2022.
Screaming Trees toured Dust for two years after its release, adding a fifth member, none other than a post Kyuss, pre Queens Of The Stone Age Josh Homme for that whole tour cycle. It proved to be the band’s swan song. Throughout the history of modern music, the road is littered with bands that many feel as though they didn’t get a fair shake. Bands who never achieved the success or adulation they deserved. If ever a band fit that description, it’s the Screaming Trees.
Dust is a glorious epitaph. Most bands’ creativity is on life support after seven albums. But, seven albums in, under the weight of dysfunction, Screaming Trees excelled and delivered another true masterpiece. They went out swinging and left an indelible mark of bruised, beautiful, transcendent songs and albums. And we are forever grateful.
Long live SCREAMING TREES…!!!!