Shake the hand of fate for pushing Pearl Jam into the Pantheon. Because if Pearl Jam had never gotten huge, guitarist Stone Gossard wouldn't have gotten rich. And if Stone Gossard had never gotten rich, he wouldn't have started his own record label. And if Stone Gossard had never started his own record label, Critters Buggin might have never gotten into a studio. And that would have been a calamity of omission, because Critters Buggin cut a serotonin-soaked, improvised, deep instrumental groove that glows, burns, twists and turns like the tracer exhaust of a Tron light cycle.
Here's our story so far: Drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Brad Houser made up the rhythm section of the New Bohemians (of Edie Brickell and the NBs fame), scored a big hit in 1988 with that loopy "What I Am" single, burned out on Edie's hippie-chick trip two years later and relocated to Seattle before it was hip to do so. Chamberlain pulled brief stints with several local bands, including Pearl Jam, then carved out a lucrative niche as a studio and tour musician. Houser did the same, and immersed himself in world music on the side. In 1993, the two connected with Skerik--a hashish-head, avant-jazz sax player with a bandoleer of effect boxes and a monster tone. Skerik was newly bandless after the breakup of Pac Northwest regional heroes Sadhappy, and the three started playing sporadic club gigs as Critters Buggin.
Those shows were glorious, free-for-all jams of improvised, psychedelic funk and live underground dance music. Basically, Houser and Chamberlain would lay down a fat, repetitive, usually tribal-informed beat so tight it sounded like a loop, and Skerik would go wilding over the top. After a few gigs/public jam sessions, the Buggers were a word-of-mouth sensation with serious draw power, and Gossard signed them as the first act for his LooseGroove label. The band went into the studio with nine loose song structures and came out with Guest in early 1994. That album sold decently in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Anchorage, Alaska, but didn't even blip on the charts elsewhere. It's not like the Critters cared--they didn't even really consider themselves a band. Besides, there was no promotional push for Guest to speak of, and no tour. All three musicians were committed to other projects, and their live performances were limited to practically spur-of-the-moment shows whenever their paths converged in Seattle for more than a day or two.
On New Year's Eve, '94/'95, Critters Buggin played a marathon set at a tiny club in Anchorage, where during the course of three hours they spun the nine tracks on Guest into a magic web where motifs appeared and faded, crossed and recrossed like visions in opium smoke. Gossard joined the group onstage, along with LooseGroove label mate Lonnie Marshall, lead singer for Weapon of Choice. At midnight, one of the musicians reached into his purple-sequined jacket pocket, scooped up a brimming handful of blotter acid, and tossed the paper squares over the crowd like confetti.
Like a Critters show, Guest is a fever-dream pastiche. The album runs hot and cold, but in the end leaves you sweaty and purged. Skerik's schizophrenic sax work is enthralling throughout. On "Critters Theme," he blinks from a clear, cool, loungey tone to Coltrane-esque skronks and squawks, then back again. Elsewhere, he patches his horn through various echo, delay and tonal distortion effects that warp his notes into everything from whale song to banshee cries. Two of the best tracks on Guest are featured in the new Tupac Shakur/Tim Roth flick Gridlock'd. One is the crisp, hyperkinetic "T-Ski," which perfectly serves a chase sequence, and the other is "Naked Truth," a shimmering ballad that includes Satchel singer Shawn Smith's husky, honeyed voice in the only Critters song with vocals.
Guest has been out of print for more than a year, but LooseGroove is rushing to re-release the album based on the high-spiked early sales of Critters Buggin's just-released second album, Host. Like its predecessor, Host was recorded in long sessions of improvisation that orbited several prearranged riffs. Those episodes were then edited down to an album's worth (in this case, 12 tracks) of the most choice results.
Generally, Host is a gentler ride than Guest, with fewer frenetic teeth-grinder jams and more trancey aural walkabouts. The opener, "Mount Blasta," is an exception with its insistent rhythm assault and a shrill, ghostly sax line. On the flip side, "Sex Doily" opens with an exotic, fuzz-tone hook that loops as Skerik darts in and around it like a staccato pixie. Houser's bass lines on Host are more out front than before, and reflect his recent fascination with Moroccan ganawa music. Traditionally used in trance ceremonies, ganawa centers on repetitive, pentatonic scale bass lines played on a hollowed-out gourd with gut strings (the Bill Laswell-produced Night Spirit Masters is the definitive ganawa collection). Ganawa is really trippy stuff, and a perfect fit in the Critters mosaic. This band's got a freaky, funky beat, and, yeah, you can bug out to it.
Critters Buggin is scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 15, at Gibson's in Tempe, with the Samples, and Stir. Showtime is 9 p.m.