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October 30, 2006

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We're a nation at war. Not just at war in far-flung Middle-Eastern hellhole quagmires, either; that's just one battle in a greater war, a war that's fought each day on the home front, in polling places and public policy. It's a battle that has 21st-centry liberal thinkers pitted against the bibles-and-banks agenda of the right and it's much deeper than blue-state/red-state voting trends. It's evolution versus creationism, stem cell research versus a dark-ages fear of science, gay marriage versus homophobia. It's enlightenment versus faith, and whether you know it or not, you know exactly which side is yours.

These Arms Are Snakes' second full-length, Easter (Jade Tree), leaves no doubt on which side of the bed the Seattle art-punk noisemakers sit. They're checking the box that says "Enlightenment." Moving past the one-sided atheist arguments that traditionally pit punks against the notion of spirituality, Easter walks a more slippery slope, namely that spirituality in all its colors isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the fundamentalist rank-and-file that's so often confused with faith and devotion is a mortal sin no matter what your denomination.

That might sound like Easter is a call to compromise. It's not. These Arms Are Snakes lay out an agenda that recognizes the enemy, right-wingers who dangle the threat of eternal damnation over the flock to serve as an engine to drive a socio-political agenda. With the enemy identified, Easter launches barrage after barrage against it. "Perpetual Bris" challenges believers to test their faith as the band (singer Steve Snere, guitarist Ryan Frederiksen, keyboardist/bassist Brian Cook and drummer Chris Common) back away from the clamorous post-hardcore of its past to mix acoustic guitar and atmospheric ambiences for a decidedly low-key number. "Child Chicken Play" offers buzzing guitars that recognize intensity isn't merely a function of volumes to deliver a creepy tale of misplaced faith, while "Lady North" picks up the pile-driving dynamics and firebomb guitars to weave a tale of spiritual breakdown and a loss of faith. These Arms Are Snakes want listeners to question their beliefs, and questions, as we've been told by hundreds of years of theologians, is anathema to faith. The gauntlet's thrown down.

While Easter takes on an issue that's possibly the most divisive and fundamental one in today's cultural landscape, These Arms Are Snakes are keeping the battle focused and close to home. Easter may challenge the lynchpin beliefs of everyone from Focus on the Family's inner circle and the evangelical/Republican voting bloc to eager youth-group recruiters and Sunday-school devotees, but it has a more specific target in mind.

"It's about Christians in the punk world. Christianity has become a big part of, I don't even want to use the term 'punk,' but all these Christians tend to be into punk bands," guitarist Frederiksen complains. "It's just more about questioning religion and questioning yourself and not just blindly following whatever it is people tell you to do."

If there's a band that has the perspective to comment on faith's slow, steady infiltration of the punk world, it's These Arms Are Snakes. Although the act's still relatively young -- it first came together in Seattle in 2003 -- its members aren't new to the scene. Keyboardist/bassist Cook helped draw up the post-hardcore blueprint in Botch, which ran its course between 1993 and 2001, while front man Snere is one of seemingly dozens of Kill Sadie alumni who popped up since the hardcore act threw in the towel in 2001. The band members, whose ages hovers around the 30-year-old mark, have been around the block -- several times, in fact -- and know a thing or two about punk, hardcore and its atrophying allegiance to independent thought.

Although These Arms Are Snakes turns its ire toward the punk underground on Easter, the scene's nothing but a microcosm of American culture. From attempts to slip religion into school curriculum through the backdoor of intelligent design to rabble-rousing to enforce a faith-based interpretation of marriage upon legal definitions of love, hard-lining Christians aren't content to keep their beliefs to their faith. They're pushing them into any venue that will accept it.

"This record was kind of a backlash on that for us," Frederiksen says. "That's what Easter is about. It's about how Christianity seeped into punk rock, which is strange in itself, because punk rock, in its ideals, was always against religion. A lot of Christianity just seeped its way into the mainstream the past couple years. That's totally insane to all of us. This is kind of our reaction to it."

Easter loudly proclaims its defiance toward the Evangelical right on every twist and turn, but it also sneaks in another agenda, albeit a musical one: The quest to keep the underground fresh, challenging and interesting. Where the band's previous effort, Oxeneers, or the Lion Sleeps When the Antelope Go Home (2004, Jade Tree) reveled in angular guitars and noisy bursts of tortured rhythms, Easter showcases a band that's grown weary of the race for hardcore bands to become the fastest, hardest, most spastic outfit on the block. TAAS still maintains a love for juggernaut post-hardcore riffs of its members' previous outfits, but it supplements them with melodic, quiet stretches that don't just make its louds seem louder by comparison. They also add textures, depth and dynamics almost universally lost in the post-hardcore arms race to become the loudest, baddest band on the block.

That approach to post-hardcore's a marked change away from the increasingly juvenile sounds pandered by most of today's acts. What was once a scene dominated by artistically minded punks making a conscious effort to escape the confines of the punk world's expectations is now just another facet of the scene's codified caste system.

Easter yanks post-hardcore out of the hands of geeky high-school scenesters and MySpace centurions. In fact, it's one of those rare punk albums that sit better with fans who've reached their mid-20s better than the stereotypical hoodrat punk kid. The flavors of maturity that color the album are no coincidence Frederiksen explains.

"I turn 30 in a couple months," he says. "You start getting a little more jaded as you get older. It's like 'Where the fuck are the good bands? This fucking sucks!' I just feel jaded by all these younger bands and all these little kids playing shit music. I'm totally jaded."

Maybe not totally jaded. After all, Frederiksen and company haven't jumped ship and fled the punk scene yet. They're making punk rock that's as vital and artistic as anything else out there. That alone should be enough to scrape the frost off any jaded scenester's heart.

The fact that These Arms Are Snakes have been able to build an audience of their peers -- the sort of twentysomething and thirtysomething weaned, then soured on punk -- should be an even better reason to warm your heart. There's a troubling trend of aging punk veterans taking the stage and playing to audiences made up of fans half their age. Easter transcends the teenage thrills that hold most punk acts together, to find a sound that connects with These Arms Are Snakes' peers.

"It's weird, I just overheard Jordan from the Blood Brothers saying that they've been a band for 10 years now and their audience has not changed in age," Frederiksen says. "It's been, when they started out, it was kids the same age as them, and then 10 years later, it's kids still that age. It's a bit disheartening because you want your audience to grow with you. I just don't know why that doesn't happen. Maybe other people get jaded before 30. Maybe they get jaded and move on. I think we kind of have a bit of an older audience which is awesome, but the problem is, they don't buy anything!"

Easter revives the spirit, if not the exact sound, of classic punk. It draws a line, takes a side and forces listeners to do the same. It's unabashedly liberal and humanist. Best of all, it's not rehashing the same three chords again and again. When a band does that, there's no questioning which side of the cultural war it enlists. TAAS is here for enlightenment.

But how realistic is it to hope for the pendulum to swing away from the religious tomfoolery that's colored everything from the domestic agenda to the punk scene in recent years? Is These Arms' message going to get heard?

Whether or not the band's heard, change is inevitable, Frederiksen predicts. Politics will shift with fickle voters just as music and fashion trends will move on. The culture wars will rage on, and, after losing ground to a faith-based agenda, rational humanism will once again gain ground -- and help bring balance back to the punk world.

"I think it's going to come back around," he says. "I think it's been such a shitty couple years for Bush, I think the backlash is on its way. Hopefully the next election, we'll see a huge shift in politics and in turn, that'll shift back to music and stuff as well.

"I think it is just a cool commodity kind of thing," Frederiksen says. "I think the cool thing to do is to be "into punk rock" for little kids. Eventually, that's going to turn and people aren't going to give a shit about these mainstream punk bands anymore. That's exactly what they are, they're mainstream. The mainstream is going to go a different direction and we'll still be here."


Matt Schild