Murder by Snakes? These Arms are Death?

So, I recently decided to do something adventuresome, fun and potentially stupid. I randomly decided to see These Arms are Snakes and Murder By Death on July 14 in Pomona, CA without ever hearing anything by either band. (There goes my king of hipsterdom nomination.)

There are risks involved in going to any show, mostly because you never know how awful the openers may be. But when you go “blind date” style, you even have to worry about the headliners. I had, at least, heard of each band, and good reputations preceded each.

I quickly learned that Seattle’s These Arms are Snakes features members of art thrashers Botch and Minneapolis’s warmly regarded Kill Sadie (whose guitarist now resides in Pretty Girls Make Graves) and are set to release Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When its Antelope Go Home on September 21st. Murder By Death apparently was discovered in their home state of Indiana by Geoff Rickly of Thursday fame. He pushed for them to Eyeball records, who released Thursday’s Waiting, and they now have released two cds with the label.

A few downloads after discovering the histories, I thought I had a relatively good grasp of where both bands stood. These Arms were straight up post-hardcore in the vein of a heavier Quicksand and Murder By Death sounded sorta like Cursive, mostly because of the cello. (These of course, were my severely ignorant initial observations listening to one song each: “Grape Dragon” and “Killbot 2000,” respectively).

As These Arms Are Snakes hit the stage, I watched singer Steve Snere (a fitting last name) swagger onto stage, confidently, not arrogantly. He had a job to do, and it seemed much more to do with the music than it did with entertaining the crowd. I liked that.

Ironically, the band opened with “Grape Dragon,” and said to myself, “Well?°¦at least I know the name of the first song.” Snere fluttered around the stage with a presence equal parts Cedric Bixler-Zavala and the aforementioned Rickly. But, his strut is even more natural and testosterone injected; it’s almost as natural as his pissed-off stage demeanor. With vocals akin to those of Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington raging on PCP, Snere commands respect with his speak screaming in the way rappers like Chuck D., Chali 2Na and Mr. Lif demand attention.

The drubbing bass lines of Brian Cook drove many of the songs, while guitarist Ryan Frederiksen (who, incidentally, was recovering from getting his appendix out only six days previous) supplemented Cook’s arty Quicksand inspired lines.

About four songs in, Snere, and the band, changed shape. The lighting (which Snere ran through an effects board at his feet,) got darker. The band got darker. The mood followed. What had been an impressive post-hardcore display of such new songs as “Angela’s Secret” and “Big News” transformed into an overpowering experimental post-hardcore opera of controlled chaos. The drums got bigger. The bass lines thumped heavier. The crowd became entranced, or at least bewildered.

The display even inspired me to close my eyes. I’ve never wanted to look away from any band I’ve liked, or even laughable bands, least of all a band I’d only heard one song from. But I felt “Run it Through,” “Idaho” and the bombastic “Drinking From the Necks of the Ones You Love.” (My girlfriend nabbed a set list after the show?°¦)

In fact, the only disappointment of the whole set was that it was only eight songs. This could have been caused by anything: Frederiksen’s stitches, that the band was playing with a replacement drummer, or perhaps they just felt that eight was enough. I was disappointed, yet wholly satisfied.

Openers Murder by Death seem like a dangerous band to take on tour with you. They’re enigmatic enough to steal just about any crowd because of their complex orchestration, and genuine, Midwestern personality. Of the four bands on the bill, Murder drew the largest crowd.

The band’s creative energy, for me was embodied in two moments: The first was watching their Valkyrian cellist Sarah Balliet not only abuse her cello but also whole-heartedly sing nearly every song. No microphone picked her up, leaving her cello to play her voice. The second was the fact the band actually had the balls (and in Sarah’s case, ovaries) to end their set with not one, but two instrumentals, “Those Who Stayed” and “Those Who Left” from 2002’s phenomenally named Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing.

But oddly, after watching them play, I don’t think I would have wanted anything else. Murder, live, reminded me of Hum’s two great albums, “Downward is Heavenward” and “You’d Prefer and Astronaut,” not at all in terms of sound, but in terms of feel. Each instrument, cello, drums, keys, guitar, bass, and singer Adam Turia’s vocal chords were all equals, separating only for a few moments at key points, and then pulling back together. On record (I bought both) Turia’s vocals are more pronounced, but his gently rollicking vocal style (not unlike Ryan Adams’ less drunk moments) is a refreshing change of pace from the emo whining.

At times it was hard to tell lyrically whether or not I actually was seeing the most inventive country band on the planet. There were too many references to whiskey for there not to be some roots (pronounced ruuts) in bluegrass. But, thankfully, there was no twang, and their tongue-in-cheek lyrics and song titles (“I’m Afraid of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Until Morale Improves the Beatings Will Continue,” for starters) reveal the force Murder By Death probably will become. They don’t take themselves too seriously, which is odd given their fantastic musicianship, stage presence and aura, at such a young age. I mean, their single, “Killbot 2000” is about zombies and it sounds great.

Paris, Texas opened with a power pop meets heavier emo set, and Communiqué emulated Deadsy hitting the emo scene. Neither were very memorable, and both need some work developing a cohesive stage identity. But at least they didn’t give me a headache.

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