The Beakers
Four Steps toward a Cultural Revolution
(K Records)

The Blackouts
History in Reverse
(K Records)

If you were endeavoring to make original rock music in the late '70s/early '80s, Seattle was a pretty inhospitable host. One of the biggest hurdles was finding a place to play. With most clubs focused on cover bands, other groups would leap at any available venue--art galleries, porno theaters, abandoned buildings (I once attended a show at a creepy place called the Meatlocker, which it apparently was)--that might be willing to have music for an evening, but were just as likely to be shut down the following week.

Yet through perseverance, a nascent music scene developed. Now a welcome time capsule from that era has arrived via two releases from K Records--the Beakers' Four Steps toward a Cultural Revolution and the Blackouts' History in Reverse.

The Beakers are the lesser known of the two, given the brevity of their life span (1979 to 1981), and the fact that they only released one single and a few tracks on compilations. Their music is a taut, edgy mix of punk and jazz influences that smack you awake in the first moments of Revolution's opener, "Red Towel"; a skwonking sax intro gives way to a scratchy guitar riff, throbbing bass line, snappy clean drums, and Mark H. Smith's caterwauling vocals braying away on top. Dissonant, atonal, choosing rhythm over melody to drive the songs, the Beakers fall into the same artpunk category as Britain's Au Pairs and Gang of Four (the latter of whom the Beakers opened for in Seattle), with Smith's abrasive vocals described as those of "a hysterical David Byrne or illiterate David Thomas."

To those who got it (and Revolution's liner-note testimonials range from the Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey to Soundgarden's Kim Thayil), the Beakers were a revelation. To those who didn't, they were, at best, "challenging." Twentysomething years later, sharp, bratty songs like "Use Your fingers" (with Jim Anderson strangling his saxophone) and the title track retain their power to confound and intrigue in equal measure. Overall, the CD's 17 tracks do a fine job of capturing the band's essence, from the vaguely sinister love song, "3 Important Domestic Inventions," to a goofy cover of "Funky Town," with appropriately mangled lyrics.

The Blackouts started from an ostensibly more conventional place, as the synth-pop of "The Underpass," from their 1979 single, reveals. But their progression into uncharted waters quickly followed. By their 1980 Men in Motion EP, the sound is unmistakably darker and Erich Werner's vocals increasingly distraught; the blasts of noise that pepper "Probabilities" add an industrial edge that clearly point to the band's future direction.

A timely theft also had an unexpected impact on the band's music; when Roland Barker's synthesizer was stolen, he picked up the saxophone instead. The difference between the 1981 tracks (the last the band recorded in Seattle, replacing original bassist Mike Davidson with Roland's brother Paul) and their earlier songs is dramatic; stark and spare, the drums and bass provide a disturbing undertone to the wailing interplay of Werner's voice and Barker's sax. On "Exchange of Goods" in particular, both voice and sax are pushed to the edge of distortion, heightening the overall sense of angst and paranoia.

The band then decamped to Boston, where they recorded the Lost Soul's Club EP, produced by Ministry's Al Jourgensen. The frenzied climax of "Idiot," the whirling dervish that is "Writhing," and the menacing "Everglades" have a harsh intensity that's positively captivating, even as Werner's vocals become increasingly strident. The same can be said of the previously unreleased tracks, the last the band recorded, showing the group to be increasingly confident and presumably hitting their stride. But it was not to be, as after a subsequent move to San Francisco, they disintegrated in 1985.

Drummer Bill Rieflin and the Barker brothers found a new home in Ministry, tying the Blackouts to that band's history. But History and Revolution are more than just musical footnotes. Each band captures a time when the Seattle music scene was learning to break established rules and finding its own unique voice.

editor@thestranger.com