Punk has long been regressing into a morbid, mall-safe Frankenstein, hard rock is getting retro CPR via the likes of Burning Brides and Queens of the Stone Age, but hardcore?notoriously the most inflexible of aggressive genres?is, surprisingly, where the evolution’s really at. Two Pacific Northwest upstarts champion a refreshingly individualistic approach to hardcore . . . if the name even applies anymore: the darkly theatrical androids of These Arms Are Snakes and the down-to-business lumberjacks in Harkonen. Members from both bands goof around in the folk-metal hybrid Roy, but will turn the most heads?literally and figuratively?in their main outfits.
THESE ARMS ARE SNAKES
In the ridiculously massive pantheon of reptilian band names, These Arms Are Snakes are tied for last place with zero records sold. That will very likely change, once they formally release The Blue Rose EP, but in the meantime, bassist Brian Cook is rightfully championing quality over quantity.
“I’d say we’re better than Hot Snakes,” he deadpans, “but not as good as Slash’s Snakepit.”
Guitarist Ryan Frederiksen is charged with (a) responsibility for the moniker (“I was watching the Discovery Channel . . . ,” begins a suitably vague anecdote), (b) someday out-riffing the Lord of the Top Hats, and (c) replacing the gear that most colors the Snakes’ sound, the Korg Kaos Pad, which distorts vocalist Steve Snere’s howl into something resembling Skeletor installing suppositories.
“[The first] one broke,” sighs Snere. “It wasn’t durable at all, literally all made of plastic. Then Korg came out with version II, all metal, with a lot more effects and whatnot . . . and it got stolen. So far, that’s $600, all gone.”
All this before their sixth show, bear in mind, not to mention a small army of converts touting These Arms Are Snakes as a formidable paradigm shift in hardcore due to their unpredictable, progressive anti-melodies. It’s like they threw Bowie and Page in a burlap sack and dumped them off in the . . . And Justice for All disinformation camp.
“I think hardcore doesn’t mean the same thing it did five or six years ago,” Cook suggests. “When the Blood Brothers first came out, I was like, ‘Oh, they’re totally a hardcore band,’ but I don’t know if I’d call them that anymore. That understates all the things they’re doing.”
“We’re hardcore avant-garde,” drummer Joe Preston chimes in, closing the case by quoting his lead singer. “We’re avant-hard.”
Nothing is more avant than a blinding light show, that is, besides a bad light show. Witnesses at the Snakes’ recent Graceland gig (after which the Kaos Pad was swiped) found the house lights completely turned down and a progression of bizarre strobes barely illuminating the pole-dancing, ax-grinding onstage chaos.
“My brother did lights [for that show] with about 20 minutes of prep time,” Frederiksen recalls. “He did a bang-up job. We decided to maintain a low-key light show for that one.”
“Low-key meaning not being able to see anything,” Cook quips.
“It’s part entertainment value,” Frederiksen elaborates, “part accenting specific parts, mood?stuff like that.”
“I’m all about the light show,” Cook admits. “When I go out to see [loud] bands live, that’s what I like to see. I don’t need to go see a band I like just play the songs off the record and not embellish them.”
“Yeah,” Preston shrugs. “You might as well be at home doing your laundry.”
Harkonen, meanwhile, are not avant-garde, savant-garde, avant-hard, or even avant-bard?they’re just a thunderbolt-tossing three-piece from Tacoma. Nevertheless, they’re a viable tangent of the-future-is-now hardcore, if only because people have mistaken them for avant-hard. “A few summers ago, we finally got to the East Coast,” begins bassist-frontman Ben Verellen, “but our drummer broke his wrist a couple weeks before we were supposed to leave [and couldn't play for a sustained length of time]. We recorded him playing his drum parts and played it through a CD into a bunch of PA speakers. That was our drummer for the whole tour because, goddammit, we were gonna do it that time.
“We ended up playing a lot of straight-up hardcore shows, where people . . . either really didn’t get it or thought we were doing something weird.”
Couple that kind of queerly blessed misfortune with a revolving-door guitarist affliction that makes the Chili Peppers look stable, and Verellen must be relieved that the band’s debut, Shake Harder Boy (Hydrahead), is a done deal, representative of Harkonen’s most punishing, potent incarnation: himself, drummer Matt Howard, and guitarist Casey Hardy. “Baristas Get Stalked” and “We’ve Come for Your Daughters” (title inspired by Beetlejuice!) are taut exercises in creative repetition, confidently straddling the line between power rock and metal famously scorched by MotÃ¶rhead. Verellen laughs appreciatively at the comparison.
“Sure, I mean they’ve got distorted bass lines; we’ve got distorted bass lines,” he concedes. “There’s kind of a ‘simple rock’ idea behind the whole band lately.”
One idea that’s persisted since Harkonen’s junior-high inception is a pervasive, self-deprecating sense of humor. They’ve taken the novelty T-shirt concept to glorious postmodern extremes, wearing short sleeves adorned with their blown-up visages (now immortalized in Shake Harder’s liner notes) for multiple gigs.
“The thing is, we’re not pissed-off, crazy death-metal dudes,” Verellen shrugs. “We usually do something like that for a couple of shows and, you know, the funniness wears off pretty quick.”
What pisses Verellen off is not necessarily what upsets his brother Dave, the former Botch frontman/current EMT, although both brothers are affable, approachable men.
“He’s got a silly disposition, for being the singer of Botch, but he’s a lot more serious than I am,” Verellen confides. “He’s a total cop. I think Dave has more of a trying-to-tackle-issues approach. He has a greater worldview. I don’t really have the perspective for that.”
A 22-year-old, ex-straight-edge kid finally moving from Tacoma to U-Dub to complete a degree in electrical engineering, Verellen turns his pirate voice into overdrive when his band is underestimated.
“A lot of it has to do with being bitter at . . . I hate to say this, but the all-ages scene not really getting the band,” he admits. “There’s no guy up front pointing at people and screaming. It’s not At the Drive-In. They’re kind of confused.”