SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

SCREAMING TREES – DUST (1996)

June 25th, 1996, Screaming Trees released their seventh studio album, Dust, through Epic Records. The making of Dust was complex for Screaming Trees. Their previous album, Sweet Oblivion, was released in 1992. By 1995, the band had yet to record or release a follow-up to that album, which had been their most successful. When Dust was finally released in 1996, so much had changed.

By the time the band released Sweet Oblivion in 1992, they had already released six studio albums and two EPs in just seven years. They were prolific trailblazers rising from the nascent alternative rock and grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest. Come 1992, the band were riding high on the grunge explosion and was perfectly placed to emulate the success of their peers.

Sweet Oblivion’s hit single “Nearly Lost You” catapulted them into the lives of music fans worldwide due to its inclusion on the 1992 soundtrack of the Cameron Crowe movie “Singles.” With the relentless tour cycle that followed, few predicted it would be 1996 before 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. 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 in 1994.

It would be disingenuous to list why this gap in productivity occurred; only those within the Screaming Trees circle know. But, it is clear that to capitalise on their burgeoning popularity, Screaming Trees needed to release Dust in 1993 or 1994, not 1996.

One obstacle that has been well documented was Mark Lanegan’s battles with addiction, which, at the time, were becoming all-consuming. In his memoir “Sing Backwards and Weep”, he recalled the birth of Dust, saying, “I sporadically got together with my Screaming Trees bandmates, and we began the painful process of trying to write another record. It would take a group of fully developed, great-sounding demos before Epic Records 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.”

Yet, despite the bleak realities surrounding the band behind the scenes, Screaming Trees delivered an album of devastating beauty. Dust leans hard into their earlier albums’ psychedelic blues, gritty folk, and hard rock brilliance. Its oceanic depths are breathtaking; years later, it continues to reveal new inflections to the listener. An old cliche is that you have to suffer for your art, and while there is no real evidence that suffering has any bearing on the quality of art whatsoever, Screaming Trees makes a strong case with Dust that a little hurt goes a long way.

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. It’s a vital track, brimming with commanding musicianship from guitarist Gary Lee Conner, bassist Van Conner, drummer Barrett Martin and a stunning vocal from Lanegan. The lyrics beautifully match the music’s yearning pathos: “She wears a halo of ashes / Specter on the wind / Waits on me so patiently / I no longer can pretend.”

The first single, “All I Know”, follows, again courting a solid psychedelic feel; its joyous groove and bounce belie the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation. Opening with a tremolo guitar that feels like an excited pulse, the song giddily builds to a wide-open verse, where Lanegan sings, “Bite the thorn that pierces the skin / Come back down to Earth again / The cold is creeping deep inside / You disconnect the telephone lines,” before the deep chorus hook of, “All that I know should’ve been, could’ve been mine,” sinks in.

“Look At You” is a beautiful ballad shot through with sadness and reflection. Beneath its simplicity lies a sophistication that not many bands could match. Again, the song’s lyrics strike a chord. Lanegan’s weathered voice pours over each syllable as he sings, “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.” While the song is essentially a gorgeous Americana ballad, it’s laced with delicate pop hooks and a pitch-perfect performance from the band as they build and lower the song dynamics with stunning finesse.

“Dying Days” opens with an acoustic guitar and Lanegan’s formidable voice before kicking into a barrelling rocker. A crashing, effervescent abandon is at play; the band is in top form, augmented by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ gifted keys player Benmont Tench, who adds piano, organ, electric piano, and mellotron throughout the album. His inclusion is an inspired pick, as he effortlessly complements the band’s earthy sound. Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready adds a typically fiery guitar solo.

The mysterious swell of “Make My Mind” creeps with an ebullient swing. The atmosphere is thick and edgy as Gary Lee’s insistent guitar anchors Barrett Martin’s tumbling drums and Van Conner’s low-slung bass swing. Lanegan’s Waits-ian baritone beautifully balms the entire piece.

The 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. It is a powerful track propelled by Barrett Martin’s stunning drumming and a stark reminder that 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, complementing Gary Lee Conner’s exploratory, psychedelic guitar passages with flavours of world music percussion.

“Traveler” is a Beatles-esque journey with strings and gorgeous mellotron from Benmont Tench. Lanegan opines, “I’m halfway here / I’m halfway there / All along, I’ve been the traveler” over a swell of elegantly structured chord sequences. “Dime Western” is a gripping rock song propelled by Barrett Martin’s vicious tom attack. I Love You, guitarist Jeff Nolan guests winding some vivid passages around Gary Lee Conner’s stinging lines.

“Gospel Plow” closes out the album in an emphatic fashion. Opening with an atmospheric eastern-sounding drone as Lanegan sings a Gospel blues refrain above the din, ” If you want to get to Heaven / let me tell you how / Keep your hand on the gospel plow / Hold on, hold on.” The band crashes in with gripping authority, shifting between high-octane blues, unsettling mood passages, and pummelling heavy workouts.

If Lanegan and Martin are the body and brains, brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner are the heart and soul of Screaming Trees. 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 gave Screaming Trees their unique sound. His blistering attack, impeccable tone, and incendiary stage antics are legendary.

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, that giant swing.” Van added the “swing” to the Screaming Trees sound on record and live, propelling each song skyward from the bottom up.

Mark Lanegan possessed a once-in-a-lifetime howl, full of character, grit, dexterity, and real emotive grace. In 2001, he spoke about its origins. “I dunno, it’s hereditary; my father has a real sandpaper voice; it’s almost like he can’t get through a word without it breaking 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 sounded just like the kid I was, and in time, it changed into this different deal.”

Mark used it to perfection. The timbre of his voice perfectly matched the rootsy soul of Screaming Trees’ music. He was a hard-living poet who lived a profoundly creative and productive life until his untimely death in 2022 at his home in Ireland.

Screaming Trees toured Dust for two years after its release, adding a fifth member for the album’s tour cycle, none other than a post-Kyuss, pre-Queens Of The Stone Age Josh Homme. But the album proved to be the band’s swan song. Throughout the history of modern music, the road is littered with bands that many feel didn’t get a fair shake, bands who never achieved the success or admiration they deserved. If ever a group 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 to their stellar back catalogue. They went out swinging, leaving an indelible mark of bruised, beautiful, transcendent songs and albums. And we are forever grateful.

Essential…!