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September 17, 2004

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WHAT HAPPENS when hardcore punk bands grow up ? For an answer, one could replay Hüsker Dü's 1984 landmark, Zen Arcade . The Minneapolis trio went from the blitzkrieg Land Speed Record to Zen 's dizzying blend of folk, punk, metal and avant jazz in about five seconds flat, relatively speaking. (Or three albums in two years, literally.) A double-LP released when hardcore had already begun to crack under its constraints, Zen Arcade helped break open the floodgates.

Twenty years have elapsed since Zen Arcade . But no matter what the era, no matter what the movement, there'll be dogma. When a hardcore band matures, however, rigidity is no longer practical nor applicable; it's simply a limitation to be eschewed and moved beyond.

And so it is with These Arms Are Snakes, a Seattle juggernaut whose members were weaned on the unusually strong — though admittedly more freeform — strains of Northwest hardcore. In 2002 the band's members, all in their 20s, assembled from the detritus of underground outfits such as Kill Sadie, Botch and Nineironspitfire. But those groups, admired as they might have been in rec hall basements and Unitarian church venues, don't matter anymore.

Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home is These Arms Are Snakes' first full-length, and it follows an EP and the split single or two expected in hardcore camps. As a result, TAAS remains within a fairly mundane paradigm. But what counts is content, and from its opening blast of analog synth squall, Oxeneers is clearly something different.

In what might best be described as abstract hardcore (if only to avoid overusing hyphenated modifiers), Oxeneers is intelligent and shape-shifting. The band's open-ended approach to punk makes room for pump organs and multi-dimensionality, for eight-minute epics and eccentric interstitials, for art rock and dub, for incisive social critique and impassioned pleas for humanism. And it makes for one of 2004's most engaging and urgent records.

Like Zen Arcade , Oxeneers has a narrative structure (based upon a short story by vocalist Steve Snere) that doesn't bog the record down. In other words, you can enjoy the CD regardless of context and feel free to bring your own perspective to the listening experience. And whether it's odd little trifles like the Badalamenti-esque “Tracing,” the calliope swirls of “Idaho” giving way to frantic rhythms and Ryan Frederiksen's magnificently jittery guitar, or the anxious force of “Big News,” the 11-song CD strikes a magical balance between delicacy and aggression without sacrificing an ounce of power. In an alternate, parallel, non-commercial, art-punk universe, “Greetings From the Great North Woods” is already a huge hit, if only for its lurching chorus: “These pigs were fed, these pigs were ready to be sold.”

Aside from qualifying for one of the longest record titles in punk, Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home , also deserves to be one of the most influential CDs of its time. It's too soon to tell, of course, if the CD will take its place alongside capital-I Influential albums such as The Velvet Underground and Nico , London Calling , Zen Arcade and Slint's Spiderland . Having grown up so well, These Arms Are Snakes at least deserves the consideration.

Cleveland Free Times

Mark Woodlief