September 22, 2004
THESE ARMS ARE SNAKES [I]OXENEERS OR THE LION SLEEPS WHEN ITS ANTELOPE GO[/I] REVIEW
Formed from the remnants of Botch and Kill Sadie, These Arms Are Snakes released their 2003 debut EP, This Is Meant to Hurt You, as a relatively accessible announcement of a notable new voice in punk music. Alternately melodic and inundated with noise, willfully abrasive and easily approachable, the EP raised expectations for the band's forthcoming full-length and backed up the band's steady opening spot on last year's Blood Brothers tour. The band has finally emerged from the buzz created from its previous release with Oxeneers, a challenging debut that sidesteps inflated expectations by staying close to the group's established sound while still demonstrating a flexibility conducive to future musical development.
The album opens with an assault of rhythmic mechanical noise. Slowly, Erin Tate's methodical drumming imperceptibly melts into the cacophony, and an angular guitar riff obliterates the artificiality of the track's introduction. The resulting "Shit Sisters" is the most definitive example of TAAS's hybridization of diverse influences to date. The song blends Steve Snere's sullen screamo vocals, Ryan Frederiksen's math-rock guitar precision, a trademark prog breakdown, and seamlessly inserted bursts of noise into a concise, piercing, and melodic statement of purpose. The song also introduces the album's recurrent thematic strand of suffocating domesticity ("May there be porcelain/ 401K plans/ NASDAQ"), a theme further emphasized by Snere's conceit that most songs on the album were based on his experiences at a thankless check-cashing temp job.
Snere admirably seeks to take back the potency of suburban decay as a compelling image system from the clutches of countless overnight pop/punk sellouts. His depictions of abusive domestic situations and tales of mental escape from oppressive middle-class environments are frequently harrowing and affectingly sincere. "Angela's Secret" pulsates with bleak energy, twisting a grimy bassline and militaristic rhythm into a moving portrayal of one woman's agony in trying to raise her children while working at an interminable dead-end job. Funereal ballad "Your Pearly Whites" uses a backdrop of sludgy guitars and sinister organ to aid Snere's disturbing oral-fixated reflection on the emotional scars of domestic abuse.
TAAS's glaring weakness is their tendency toward disengaging academic indulgence. The album's subtitle, like the band's name itself, superficially hints at a certain pretentiousness that can be felt in the album's most over-exerted tracks. The largely instrumental "Gadget Arms", heavy with foreboding harmonic atmospherics, disorienting reverb, and affected noise, initially complements Snere's intimately graphic imagery ("Breathe on me/ Never spit your last tooth") but grows tedious over the course of its 7-minute runtime. Interludes like the elegiac organ instrumental "Tracing" and found sound collage "Oxeneers" add texture to the album, but feel like labored artistic afterthoughts.
The album's melodic underpinnings, however, are its unmitigated strong suit-- the most memorable material derives its power from the complex construction of succinct and simple musical ideas. The terse "La Stanza Bianca" fuses undisguised hardcore verses with a disconnected synth line and post-punk rhythm guitar, and the captivating "Idaho" forms several compelling elements-- a waltzing lo-fi organ progression, dueling math-rock guitars, and shifting time signature-- into a sprawling but rewardingly cohesive finale.
Oxeneers adequately realizes the potential of This Was Meant to Hurt You, but the band could easily cut some of the prog-rock fat that intermittently hinders the album's momentum. These Arms Are Snakes is a promising venture of a group juggling several parallel engagements and side projects (including Minus the Bear), though the band occasionally stumbles in establishing a singular voice. Somewhere beneath the heavy exterior and detached indulgence is a jagged post-punk outfit screaming to be let free.
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