Saetia left behind a substantial legacy with less than an hour’s worth of music, which is more than most other bands can say.
Fans of emo are familiar with a certain kind of pain. You know the bands you fall in love with, but who release one album and then break up entirely? This is the story of a hundred different bands within the genre, only worse—some of them may have only put out a few singles, maybe an EP, and almost certainly a split 7” with another band they happened to be friends with. If you couldn’t get your hands on any of those separate pieces, the best thing you could hope for would be another staple of the genre: a compilation that wrangled all of those separate releases into one place. Some of these compilations became the primary way people remember these bands. Cap’n Jazz seems to be remembered as much for their sole full-length Shmap’n Shmazz as they are for their expansive Analphabetapolothology retrospective, and Moss Icon’s Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly has probably been heard by fewer people on its own than have heard it on the 2012 Complete Discography collection.
One of the finest examples of the era is Saetia. Hailing from New York City with a name picked straight out of the Miles Davis songbook, their output was minimal: two 7”, a demo cassette and a self-titled LP. That’s not shocking considering that they lasted for just two years, between 1997 and 1999, just enough time to create 17 songs together. While they weren’t completely forging new territory with their sound, it’s also incredibly easy to argue that just 17 songs is all it took for them to pave the way for another generation of bands willing to follow in their footsteps.
Look no further than the opening track, “Notres Langues Nous Trompes.” After a brief moment of feedback, drummer Greg Drudy pummels out four quick notes that signal the entrance of singer Billy Werner, his voice sounding like he’s clawing his way out of his own grave. The first minute of “Notres” is an onslaught, but then just shy of the minute mark, the song shifts entirely, adopting the kind of twinkly guitar music the Kinsellas were making over with American Football. This is the best trick that Saetia perfected in their time together: a seamless blend of classic hardcore with moments of gorgeousness. “The Sweetness and the Light” doubles down on this, devoting most of the song to that wander, to the point where you get so lost in Werner’s echoed singing that the halfway point, where the song explodes again, feels like a punch in the jaw.
Werner’s vocals entirely obscure the bulk of what he sings, which is frequently quite beautiful, if incredibly maudlin. Reading the lyrics sheet reveals the florid and damaged poetry of a young, emotional twentysomething: “It is almost like we’ve died entwined in that way we are,” he sings on “An Open Letter,” and “Because the softest lips tell the most precious secrets” on “The Poet You Never Were.” If this all sounds cheesy as hell to you, don’t worry, it is. What sets Werner apart from every open-mic doofus in a sweater vest is sheer conviction of delivery. In “From the Firmament,” he screams, “Just because you taught me it’s better to be accepted/ Than respected/ I shut the door on you this time,” and it doesn’t feel like an act—it feels like he’s reaching into himself to grab onto something hard learned about himself. He’s at least self-aware, though: “Forget the bells tolling an hour of redemption, a minute of fancy you’ve never been given/ Forget the love letters penned by sad faced boys you’ve never met,” he screams on the excellent “The Poet You Never Were.”
Werner’s screamed delivery means that the lines that are presented more softly are the ones that land the hardest. He wasn’t just a college kid who wanted to make his throat bleed, screaming an old notebook while his friends shredded—he knew how to utilize his voice, both as a sharp weapon and as a precision tool. “Postlapsaria” sounds about a foot away from the mic, and it is all the more haunting for it. In the standout “Venus and Bacchus,” he nails the rifts that young sexual angst can cause for the already-angsty: “The dance of flesh on flesh has rendered us blind/ I look into your eyes, I look into stone,” he sings, out of breath.
This could all be overwhelming, but the remainder of the band—who were a revolving bunch of people, a true feat for a band that lasted just two years—were able to keep every track engaging for even the most hardcore-averse. There’s a profound jazz influence, definitely no shock to anyone who identified where the band’s name came from (as well as the name of their final 7”, Eronel). These are students of jazz looking to wholly subvert the genre and let it serve as both a magnification of and soothing antidote to Werner’s explosive emotions. Those twinkly guitars aren’t as dazzling as those found in Joan of Arc, Sunny Day Real Estate, or the aforementioned American Football, their killer ability to pair those guitars with more explicit hardcore elements made it possible for bands like City of Caterpillar and Circle Takes the Square to find their own footing.
This collection also wisely pads for length with a handful of live recordings from their final performance at the New York arts collective ABC No Rio. These recordings aren’t audiophile quality, but they help to document how tight the band was as a live act as well. These are shockingly tight adaptations of the recorded version of each song, which is a blessing. It means that the intricate guitar work of Jamie Behar doesn’t end up sounding like a muddy mess. Pay close attention to how well they do with adapting the dynamic “The Poet You Never Were” for an audience. It’s one of the most impressive parts of the entire collection.
What happened next? First, the buried lede: in late 1998, the band’s earliest bassist, Alex Madara, fell into a coma and passed away due to an allergic reaction. The band broke up within a year, perhaps the result of a slow death following that tragic event, but it’s just as likely that they simply ran their course, like virtually every other brilliant emo band. Werner picked up where Saetia left off with the excellent Hot Cross, which also contained bassist Matt Smith and Drudy, as well as starting Level Plane Records, who put out music by a litany of equally brilliant bands.Three of them—Behar, Smith, and Eronel bassist Steve Roche—formed the relatively prolific and long-lived Off Minor, who lasted nearly a decade after Saetia’s demise. Then there’s Drudy, who went on to team up with his guitarist friend Daniel Kessler to form Interpol, only to leave before Turn on the Bright Lights. Sadly, unlike many other bands of their era, Saetia have yet to reform in any capacity, but they shouldn’t need to—after all, they left behind a substantial legacy with less than an hour’s worth of music, which is more than most other bands can say.