The confluence of jazz and rock that began in the late 60s has been celebrated and maligned in equal measure. Its progenitors, simply through their music, seemed to validate what a revelation this hybrid was: the aggression and bombast of hard rock mixed with the musical finesse and improvisation of the jazz idiom exploded off the wax grooves of Bitches Brew, The Inner Mounting Flame, Romantic Warrior and a slew of Zappa releases. Its detractors branded it a corruption of jazz and an opportunistic pandering to rock audiences (and to be fair, they weren’t always wrong.) I think back to the unlikely encounter I had as a teenager with the late Gunther Schuller, one of jazz’s most indefatigable champions in the classical world, following a concert he’d conducted by Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra (I only knew about/attended it because I was taking drum lessons from one of the guest performers.) I asked him his thoughts on jazz fusion, and with a pained expression and wistful tone of voice, he responded he thought it was simply the crass capitalization on the similarities between jazz and rock.
It’s important to emphasize that the fusion phenomenon went both ways. Rock influenced jazz fusion and jazz deeply influenced progressive rock, something especially obvious in the early releases from groups like King Crimson and Magma. There was also the realm of jazz rock, a genre that seemed to far more closely fit Schuller’s description of fusion, being home to (with the exception of Steely Dan) eminently accessible acts like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. By the close of the 70s, though, something strange was happening in the dirty, dangerous and artistically fecund New York City of the time. The free jazz influenced No Wave scene counted among its standout acts jazzbos like James Chance and John Lurie. In the 80s, the marriage of jazz and rock had continued in a decidedly postmodern direction. Highly alienating forms of both were brought together by the likes of Mr. Bungle and John Zorn’s Naked City. It was at this point, in the last years of the decade, when a bunch of young upstarts in and around Newport News, VA came together to make something that was far more than just “jazz-inflected” rock.
In 1989, Wendy Niles (vocals, clarinet,) Thel Dominici (guitar,) Steve DiFazio (bass) and Danny Frazier (drums) formed False Sacrament. In a stunning act of commitment, Dominici, still a senior in high school, relocated to Newport News in order to be closer to his bandmates. The group’s youth belied their incredible talent, and their sound was a riveting stylistic mishmash. There was the distorted crunch, bizarre vocals and frantic drums of metal and hardcore punk, the musical precision, experimentation and rhythmic variations of prog, and an infusion of jazz stylings that made it clear to listeners they were in the same league as the best of their contemporary avant-garde rock peers. The band put out two self-produced tapes in 1990 and 1991 before signing to Very Small Records and appearing alongside Schlong on a split 10” in 1992. Around this time, Chris Self replaced DiFazio on bass and the group relocated to the Bay Area in California.
They lived in what Dominici described to me as the “24-hour rehearsal space” in Oakland known as Paradigm. “Some friends had recording equipment and we recorded [the April 1993 LP.]” Released on Very Small, April 1993 captures the band in peak form. They blow through odd time signatures, tempo changes and intricate guitar parts seemingly effortlessly, with moments of loose, dissonant experimentation cheek by jowl with tightly executed perfection. Opener “That’s Cool 2” finds Niles, Self and Dominici setting the mood with wailed vocals and tritone riffs while Frazier keeps a solid foundation under it all, embellished with syncopations and flurries of triplet fills. There’s a spoken word break, a shift into five, and more abrupt starts and stops than I bothered to count. The record never deviates from this aggressive virtuosity. “Henry’s Sleep” begins with freeform, delay drenched atonality from Dominici and Niles (on clarinet,) with Self and Frazier gradually introducing a rhythmic coherence to the whole affair. Closing track “Billy’s Nitemare” has the band’s jazz influence on full display, starting off as an almost Lounge Lizards-esque piss take of jazz improv before careening into a frenzied tumult. A repeated chromatic figure from Self and Dominici enters like a tree falling onto a house, with the track becoming a noisy dirge (complete with a squealing Theremin?) that doesn’t just abruptly end but literally cuts out.
False Sacrament found modest success and loyal fans playing the Bay Area circuit, but by the mid-90s, the group seems to have drifted apart. Following April 1993 and the Paradigm 7”, released the same year, there’s no further recorded output from the band. This begs the question of whether their relocation was beneficial or ultimately detrimental. At a point in time when the local music scene was populated by the likes of Grotus, M.I.R.V., the aforementioned Mr. Bungle, Neurosis, Primus, and the unconventional generally was in vogue, it seems as though the Bay Area was where they should have developed a broader following. Alternatively, were they crowded out by all the other experimental groups of the time? Were they ultimately just too niche, even for audiences primed to expect the unexpected?
I doubt a “broader following” was ever really a goal of any member of False Sacrament. I still find it surprising, however, that this incredible band ended up as a complete obscurity, relegated to the memories of members and fans, blog posts and YouTube uploads. “We were just young people trying to find our way and express ourselves in the form of music…heavily influenced by jazz, punk, metal and…even some R&B,” Niles told me through direct messages. “We were very dedicated to our music and doing it our own way rather than trying to conform to what was happening at the time.” As for their place in the jazz fusion tradition, False Sacrament definitely deserves at least an honorable mention, despite being neither jazz nor fusion. The Bungle and Zorn comparisons are easy, but the group was doing something distinct from the former. They took hardcore/metal and jazz and positively smashed the two together in a manner that was more serious than Bungle and less contrived than Naked City.
Some of the members remained in California while others ended up moving back to Virginia. Thel Dominici is still musically active, playing in the Virgina Beach-based prog outfit That Which Sleeps. All things considered, the question of whether this band should have been bigger is irrelevant, as it is in most cases. This particular group of people came together and made truly stunning music with no regard for genre boundaries or commercial appeal. April 1993 is proof of that.
Listen to April 1993 on YouTube: