It's 1979. A little boy is curled up, warm and fast asleep in his suburban Washington home. It's a school day, so he'll have to wake up soon, but for now, he's breathing slowly and shallowly, safe in a dream. It's 6 a.m.
Suddenly, an unreasonably loud piano and a strange falsetto rip through the house, jolting him out of his pleasant slumber. Trying hard to ignore the noise, the boy is just nuzzling back into his pillow and under the covers when the bedroom door flies open without warning. Standing in the doorway is his father, flushed, still coming down from another night on the swing shift and visibly thrilled about something.
"Check out this part!" he exclaims as the music continues with an entire falsetto chorus chiming in: "If we only had time, only had time for you."
Calm now in the realization that this is just another of his dad's new musical acquisitions that he wants to share, the boy smiles slightly and says, "Yeah, Dad, cool," but it will be a long time before he truly appreciates Supertramp the way his father does.
That little boy was Ryan Frederiksen, who would grow up to be the immensely talented guitarist for Seattle's latest musical export, These Arms Are Snakes. And this scene was typical of his childhood interactions with his father, an avid music lover who always encouraged his son to follow his muse and relentlessly pursue his own sound. To this day, Frederiksen counts his dad among the people he admires most, someone who keeps him from getting carried away by all the hype that comes along with being the Next Big Thing.
Who could blame Frederiksen, though, if he did become a bit wide-eyed? The buzz that's surrounded These Arms Are Snakes since its inception is nothing short of a phenomenon. No unproven group ever sells out its first gigs. Most acts are lucky to have a handful of people show up at their first live performances, and without a single recording or show under their belt, most bands couldn't possibly hope to fill the house.
But These Arms Are Snakes is not most bands. Emerging from the same fertile soil that rebirthed alternative rock a decade ago, the members of this apparent overnight sensation already had proven track records before they came together under the Snakes banner.
Frederiksen -- one of the key creative forces behind the blisteringly brilliant quintet -- had most recently played with Northwest rockers Nineironspitfire, while Brian Cook held down bass duties as a member of acclaimed prog-hate outfit Botch. Vocalist Steve Snere had done time with the Twin Cities' Kill Sadie, and Joe Preston had smacked the skins for Deadlock. Jesse Robertson was best known for his lighting work before he began pounding the keys with the Snakes.
Together, the soon-to-be hardcore heroes recorded a demo to help them refine their sound and to shop to some local labels. Once the demo seeped its way into the Seattle music scene -- and before the bandmembers knew what was happening -- the buzz became overwhelming.
And with the release of its first EP, This Is Meant to Hurt You, on Delaware's Jade Tree label, These Arms Are Snakes has shown the rest of the world why it deserves all the attention. The sound that the Snakes have documented is difficult to pin down. A healthy dose of late-'80s D.C. hardcore, a splash of the Jesus Lizard's dark aggression, mathcore from the likes of Drive Like Jehu and Polvo, and a generous helping of spaced-out guitar rock -- owing as much to Mercury Rev as it does to Slint and Straitjacket Fits -- all leap off the disc like a white tiger lunging for its trainer's throat.
"When people ask, I tell them we sound like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd," says Frederiksen with a laugh. "We're going in a lot of different directions. We just want to write the best songs we can. I want to keep surprising myself and everybody else."
There are plenty more surprises in store on the Snakes' first EP. This is intelligent rock that maintains an aggressive and driving edge, never getting too academic for its own good. Unconventional time signatures and intricate polyrhythms are simultaneously raw and calculated, created by intertwining Preston's rock-solid drums, Cook's contrapuntal bass lines and Frederiksen's forceful guitar hooks.
But don't call it math rock. Neither unnecessarily complicated nor unflatteringly primitive, These Arms Are Snakes isn't afraid of tossing a straightahead metallic riff or an ethereal freakout into an ice-pick-to-the-head rock-and-roll stew.
Even the shortest of the five tracks on the disc, "Diggers of Ditches Everywhere," has an epic feel to it, composed as it is of a number of distinct movements, seamlessly woven together into a dark, moody and hard-hitting slab of smart hardcore. Similarly, "Drinking From the Necks of the Ones You Love" winds its way through a labyrinthine score, unpredictably changing tempos, keys and moods. The other three tracks on the record, each with equally confounding titles -- most notably, "Riding the Grape Dragon" and "Run It Through the Dog" -- come together to create an elaborate musical opus that never sacrifices raw power or intensity for its complexity.
"Everyone in the band has so many great ideas," Frederiksen says of the songwriting process that results in such sophisticated yet visceral compositions. "Everybody contributes, and nobody gets shot down." Frederiksen and Cook each bring in ideas for guitar and bass parts, then tear each other's work apart, often turning it into something completely different. Preston and Robertson join in to flesh things out, guiding the jam until a song begins to take shape. Once the players feel they have a solid song structure they can all appreciate, Snere is brought in. In most cases, he opens his mouth and composes his lyrics on the spot.
"He's a poet," Frederiksen concedes, "but sometimes I have no idea what the hell he's talking about." Snere rarely writes an idea down until a song has already been recorded, but that doesn't stop him from penning thematically rich lyrics that add verbal brush strokes to the Snakes' canvas.
While Frederiksen is quick to credit his bandmates with their remarkable contributions to the music, his own cutthroat guitar work is the undeniable linchpin of the Snakes' sound. Brutal and beautiful, the dense lines he lays down propel the songs through their passages like a diesel locomotive, the aural expression of his love for this music. That passion, coupled with the group's impressive hardcore pedigrees, has generated a heap of unexpected attention from the Seattle pundits. And while that's been a boon, Frederiksen says there's also been a downside.
"A lot of our friends were bitter about it, telling us we were lucky," he recalls of those early days, less than a year ago. This hometown backlash got under the skin of at least some of the players and may have provided inspiration for the EP's title, but Frederiksen insists the bandmembers aren't taking the puffery or the counterattack too seriously. They're more concerned with the music than the reaction.
"We're trying to ignore it and just keep playing," Frederiksen says. "I don't care whether two or 200 people show up, because it's always awesome [to play together], and we're having a lot of fun."
And when Frederiksen talks about playing live, he knows whereof he speaks. This past summer, the band embarked on a successful and ambitious seven-week U.S. tour, opening for like-minded homeboys the Blood Brothers. This fall they're on the road for five weeks, hitting half the states in the Union. During the first two weeks of its jaunt, These Arms Are Snakes will share the stage with some unlikely companions: jangly pop merchants the Velvet Teen and fret-tapping riffers Minus the Bear (whose electronics whiz, Matt Bayles, engineered and produced This Is Meant to Hurt You in a grueling five days). The last three weeks of the autumn tour will be shared with hardcore heavies Hot Water Music.
"We're really excited about playing for new and different crowds," Frederiksen enthuses. "We don't really know what to expect."
Because These Arms Are Snakes has performed with a diverse roster of bands, concert-goers who otherwise might not have sought out the group have been exposed to it. With the variety of sounds emitting from the Emerald City's current scene, mixed bills are the norm. "There is no 'Seattle sound' right now, because everybody sounds so different," observes Frederiksen.
In the case of These Arms Are Snakes, different is definitely a good thing. It creates a safe environment in which a forward-thinking outfit like this one can develop and experiment, preventing it from being ghettoized in a specific genre, leaving it free to broaden its fan base and push the limits of artistic expression.
Undoubtedly, Frederiksen and company will continue to expand their sonic boundaries on their debut full-length. With four songs already in the bag, they hope to finish writing and recording the album by next spring for an early-summer release. And the fans amassed during the relentless touring behind This Is Meant to Hurt You will surely be waiting to see what other surprises are in store.
Maybe a little breakfast in America?
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