October 10, 2006
THERE ARMS ARE SNAKES [I]EASTER[/I] REVIEW
Upon hearing the two major post-Botch groups — Minus the Bear and These Arms Are Snakes — I was immediately drawn to the former. There was something so striking about the way Minus the Bear could be simultaneously dancy, techy, and poppy. I bought all their records and became a devoted fan, but as I was drawn back to These Arms for subsequent listens my initial ambivalence became fascination. Although I haven’t yet invested in hard copies of any their records — this will change with Easter — whenever I listen to their songs on my computer I am reminded that while they may not receive the same fanfare as Minus the Bear — who have opened for Thursday — their unique blend of aggression, passages that groove and lull, and skewed sexual atmosphere is certainly compelling. Quite simply they are a more subtle group than Minus the Bear; their music is not as poppy and infectious and their lyrics are ambiguous and experimental.
What’s curious to me is that although the principal songwriter and driving-force behind Botch’s mastery, David Knudson, is in Minus the Bear, the sound that These Arms creates on Easter and their previous records seems like the logical progression of Botch, had they not disbanded in 2002. This may sound like a stretch, but Botch’s implosion demonstrates that they were unhappy playing brutal music, and thus if they had continued their sound would have undergone major evolution; they were too forward-thinking a group to not do so and songs such as “Afghamistam” from their swan song An Anthology of Dead Ends evince a hint of that progression.
All of Botch’s essential elements are present with These Arms, albeit in a mutated form: the snaky guitar riffs soaked in effects, the barked vocals, although this time more spoken than screamed, a chilling, portentous atmosphere pervading each song, an epic, towering quality to the music regardless of song length, and overall an arty, avant-garde vibe that eludes categorization or comparison to seemingly related peers. People also often forget that though Botch could be theoretically labeled math-metal, their music relied heavily on repetition; unlike, say, Between the Buried and Me’s catalog where each segment of a song is new. Botch’s musical structuring didn’t come in the traditional sense of a chorus, but themes recurred. A cursory listen of Minus the Bear and These Arms reveals the same reliance on reiteration.
And now to Easter. In an in-studio report in the UK publication Rock Sound, the band was asked why they selected that album title. They replied that it was sort of a response to the recent prevalence of Christianity in the punk/hardcore/indie music scene, a phenomenon they found peculiar and incongruous with the counterculture spirit upon which said scene was founded. What this means in terms of the record’s subject matter is difficult to say, given the band’s penchant for vagueness, but perhaps the group appropriated the title as a jab at overly serious bible-thumpers.
Admittedly there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the music of Oxeneers and Easter except that the band continues its trend of “trimming the fat” from previous releases. Every song feels tight and streamlined yet still possesses the organic, uninhibited feel that makes the group so gripping. As is my custom, instead of a track-by-track analysis I will describe the album’s most important songs. In all honesty, I could happily discuss every track, like “Abracadabraca”—which is an excellent non-Steve Miller cover, and even the obligatory acoustic song, “Perpetual Bris,” which is actually quite good, especially because of the name.
After a swath of spacey effects, Easter launches into “Mescaline Eyes,” a track that even a casual listener would characterize as vintage These Arms. The opening riff evokes one my favorite from Botch’s catalog, one I like to call the “skyscraper” riff from “Vietmam” that begins at 1:45. I call it this because as it yawns through the rain-choked air it creates the effect of fashioning a massive structure to rival the Space Needle. As “Mescaline Eyes” reaches the two-minute mark vocalist Steve Snere (is that really his surname since it so aptly conveys his delivery) demonstrates why he is one of the more versatile and engaging frontmen in the scene. His vocal cadence effortlessly alternates between mimicking and counteracting the guitar rhythm. The band plays also plays with time changes before transitioning from a punchy, repetitive riff to the one that opened the song.
“Horse Girl” is the first taste that fans were given to the new record and it would be the perfect choice for a lead single if the mainstream listened to good music. Increasing the tempo of “Mescaline Eyes,” “Horse Girl” proves that music need not be inane techno to make you dance. The highlight of the song comes at its crescendo where Snere switches from his spoken bark to a full-blown scream of “Yeahhh! Oh, Yeahhh!” And I assure you, it does not sound cheesy.
It is worth taking a paragraph (or a few) to discuss Snere’s unique and mesmerizing vocal technique and lyrical flow in general, but which has been fully realized on Easter. Even when he disappears for a minute to allow the music the forefront, his relentless presence has been beaten into the song. Strangely, the listener also hardly notices that Snere was gone at all. He rarely relies on singing as his voice is hardly melodic, and since he seldom delivers a proper scream or the approach du jour—cookie monster growl, he does not resort to inhuman aural bludgeoning, which in many ways is a refusal to accept the capabilities of one’s normal voice. It must be that his vocals are at once tireless and natural. An apt literary comparison would be the poet Allen Ginsberg. Anyone who remembers reading an abbreviated version of Howl in a high school English class knows that it was a mouthful; the literal shape of the poem consists of bloated lines that tumble towards the margin. If Snere’s lyrics were thus arranged they would assume an analogous form. Ginsberg also relied on spontaneity, thinking expression would only be weakened by revision, and would often concoct his exhausting compositions while in trance.
Even if Snere spent years on his words, his effortless delivery belies this, as if he were a possessed rapper, freestyling to the sea foaming around him, and spitting something like Ginsberg’s own famous stanza, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Notice how the lack of punctuation augments the energetic effect. Snere’s lyrics certainly echo the sentiment of being beaten down, one of the impetuses for the term “beat”, although vocally he convinces the listener otherwise, as if he does not know his own strength. Even when the very words he utters are unintelligible, because of previous lyrics, snatches the listener are able to discern, and song atmosphere, he or she knows that perfectly fitting impressionistic images are being imparted amid echoing chaos.
“Subtle Body” may be the record’s finest track and it returns to the drawn-out style of This Is Meant to Hurt You. It also demonstrates perhaps the best evolution of the Botch sound. The throbbing guitars and crunchy bass in the song’s initial passage establish the foreboding atmosphere These Arms develops so well. They are masters at transitions, such as the one at 1:07, as the deceptively groovy bass before the following wave-like guitar runs attests. Snere’s lyrics are strong here and color the threatening vibe erotic, comparing a butterfly to the muscles in his back. After an extended chant the band commences the closest thing you’ll hear to a hardcore breakdown in a These Arms song. Just after this and?°¦ wait, did he just say “I think I’d look nice in your lawn?" Anyways, the band demonstrates that while their sound may be chaotic and ominous, they are never truly dissonant, with a sexy guitar line beginning around 5:27.
The last track, entitled “Crazy Woman Dirty Train,” is another incorporating the entirety of the These Arms' assault. The first four minutes are pure musical bliss, especially at 1:55 where the band encapsulates regality and then lulls the listener while really chilling him, wanting him not to move from that spot until it is no longer possible. I don’t understand how a band can evoke a king descending from his castle clad in jewels to be welcomed by his kingdom and suddenly the mind is jarred as imagery of an entire subway train of people becomes bloodied. Come to think of it, I don’t want to and that is why I love Easter.
In the final two minutes the tapestry that hung in the castle is now a frenzied one woven by the band: Snere exploding then wailing, bleeding in the background and a random, distorted female voice superimposed over the madness. Although Snere’s pleas for help, sense, anything he hasn’t obtained through the course of the album, seem to grow fainter, the listener still wonders naively why this female voice, ostensibly an operator, cannot do a thing. It’s a brilliant aural palimpsest and Botch would be proud. I’ll say this only once because that’s all it will take for the backlash: quietly These Arms have managed to create an album that, while it may not rival We Are the Romans in terms of influential capacity, nears it in execution. It’s catchy in a slowly-realize-you-are-whistling-an-angular-post-hardcore-band’s-music kind of way while still remaining challenging.
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