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October 7, 2004

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A gratuitous, pretentious title this album has. Bloody hell. This is the first warning sign. Second is the artwork that litters the liner notes, filled with gratuitous, inexplicable nudity. Disaffected-looking twentysomethings gaze pensively at the sorry state of the world with semi-ironic backdrops in tow - the tired remains of a party, streamers, balloons, beer cans and all - and out of nowhere pops a nipple. Maybe two. Maybe full-frontal male nudity (a rarity in any setting). The "art" on this album is baffling but very telling of its purveyors, These Arms Are Snakes, who have, knowingly or not, thrust themselves into the new "thinking man's" hardcore crowd.

This is skinny-kid hardcore. It's of the strain that finds its way into the ears of indie rockers with malleable, suggestible tastes -- a demographic that rarely tends towards hardcore on its own. Remember the Blood Brothers' sudden surge of popularity two years ago? That occurred because several widely read indie-oriented media outlets took notice of a band that was very good in its class and chose to push it to a broader audience. And it's not to say that the Blood Brothers didn't have an achievement in Burn, Piano Island, Burn; it's just that the album received a big boost from unlikely sources.

In this vein, I keep coming back to Pretty Girls Make Graves. Taking PGMG for what they really are - a pretty complex, mathy punk band - their popularity among the bland Wilco-Death Cab-Strokes "indie" demographic is pretty baffling itself. And it's to Pretty Girls that I find the most apt peer for These Arms Are Snakes. With layered, angular guitars and rhythmic overhauls looming at every juncture, this album has some adventurous textures and, indeed, some epic tracks. Both "Idaho" and "Gadget Arms" top eight minutes, and no song proper falls below three (There are a couple of throwaway intro tracks which don't count.) And so, on their debut album, TAAS has gone full-on into conceptualizing their album, although it's unclear what the real unifying theme is. The side effects are contemplative, multi-part songs that quietly build up energy for release at those oh-so-crucial moments. Yes, it's dramatic at times, maybe even overdone, and the accompanying press material lauds the group as if they were the first punk band to reach beyond the confines of power chords. Yet the lyrics avoid the poetry-angst so common on these recent "mature hardcore" (read: mainstream screamo) records that have been infesting the airwaves lately - pretty much anything that Island Records picked up on a whim and is now peddling to the mall-goers. The instrumental portions, too, are a bit too abrasive for the masses just yet. They may find the aforementioned "fans" in that great amorphous sea of 18-to-24 indie chill'un, but that should be the extent of it. I have faith, but I suppose anything's possible. For now, they should be content with viewing their achievement for what it is - a solid, provocative full-length that will make them more friends than enemies.

All signs pointed to tripe. But the visceral assault behind these songs, combined with the slight gussying-up that can be expected these days, makes Oxeneers a cut above the rest of the oxen. Dissonance is king, and while these arms may in fact be snakes, this is the soundtrack for a macabre snake-charming.

Harvard Independent

Peter Ekman