Northwest Underground rock 1980 'til the End of Time

Sweet Chemistry Set Review!

All told, an excellent artifact from “the other Seattle sound of the ‘80s”.


2xCD on Green Monkey

Great Scott(s), it’s Chemistry Set! Not THE Chemistry Set, the prolific John Peel-championed cult neo-psych British quartet. In fact, these Pacific Northwesterners only released an EP and single in their brief mid-‘80s lifetime. No, if this Chemistry Set is remembered at all, it’s for ‘Underground’, their stonking contribution to the infamous Sub Pop 200 compilation in 1988. But if you’re a follower of all things Terrascopic, then you’ll recognize the great Scotts (guitarist Sutherland and drummer Vanderpool) as members of Terrastock performers Donovan’s Brain and The Green Pajamas, respectively, although Sutherland joined the Brain after their Terrastock 5 performance in Seattle. But back in the mid-‘80s, they were smack (pun intended) dab in the middle of the Seattle grunge explosion and released an eponymous 6-track mini LP (often referred to as “Purple Record” after its cover art) and a follow-up single, mysteriously titled “Fabulous Stinking”, the titular source of this “incomplete” compilation of both releases, plus demos, rehearsals, and additional previously unreleased material.

     The “Purple Record” was as out of place in Grungeville U.S.A. as anything fellow Seattleites (and future Terrastockers) The Green Pajamas were releasing at the time (Book of HoursNovemberGhosts Of Love). But the two were mining similar territory and their overlooked material featured excellent jangly guitar pop with earworm melodies that retain their charm 30 years on. If the kids scooping up those R.E.M. albums (Life’s Rich PageantDocumentGreen) had an opportunity to hear these recordings, things may have been much different for the band. (Although the Scotts’ careers didn’t turn out all that bad!)

     Opener ‘Fields’ is an immediate heart-warmer full of backwards, phased guitars, double-timed drum pounding and immediately accessible melodies and vocals. ‘Beneath The Plow’ is even better, with a friendly vocal, ascending melody, excellent solos from Sutherland and fellow guitarist Tom Ewers, and tight performance that could’ve been a hit if record labels and MTV weren’t falling all over themselves to discover and sign the next big [grungy] thing. A terrible case of right place, wrong influences.

     ‘Hall of Mirrors’ is another grabber with Vanderpool a veritable automaton on the drumkit, and the ballads ‘Blind Caroline’ and the gruesome ‘Kill The Sleepers’ change the pace towards dreamy psychedelia. The speedy, about-faced adrenalin rush of the slacker-baiting ‘Underground’ from the Sub Pop comp ventures into Mudhoney territory (anther Terrastock vet) and is commonly cited as one of the set’s best tracks, but the label failed to capitalize and sign the band, another nail in the heart that ushered in their ultimate dissolution the following year.

     But not before the “Fabulous Stinking” single (Fatbald, 1989) took one last stab at the limelight with an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” vibe that finds the band building on their Sub Pop exposure with the sloppy, no-hold-barred rip snorting, fist pumping rollercoaster ride of ‘Look Over Your Shoulder’ and the bar band brawn of ‘Failure’. Not a jingly-jangly guitar in sight. Disc one ends with three previously unreleased cuts. ‘Grasshopper’ is typical new wave bravado with screaming guitars and white-hot solos; the remaining pair were recorded for a single release that never happened, as the band dissolved when guitarist Bill Campbell left to form Flop. ‘5 Fingers’ is certainly worthy of your ears, with its raucous guitar interplay and furious skinpounding; ‘Grime’ is an equally fun listen for those who don’t think that angry grunge verging on hardcore is a dirty word.

     Disc two features rehearsals, demos and alternate takes (most filled with appropriate band patter) that show a band finding its sound in a comfortable rehearsal and/or basement setting (the power poppy ‘Good Christian’ was actually recorded in bassist Bryan Learned’s basement). Quality is as expected for 30-year old cassettes and rehearsal recordings. An alternate mix of the EP weeper ‘Blind Caroline’ spearheads a promising collection of ultimately abandoned songs, showcasing the delicate jangly guitars that featured early in the band’s first phase. Highlights that should have been explored further include the “good when you’re stoned” circular riff of ‘Snake In The Garden’, the dreamy ‘In My Eye’ and ‘Daisy Jane’, and the jangly ‘Exo Skeletons’. All told, an excellent artifact from “the other Seattle sound of the ‘80s”.

(Jeff Penczak)

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