It took a few days for me to get in touch with These Arms Are Snakes bassist Brian Cook, but it wasn't for lack of effort on both our parts. Tracking down a touring band is no easy feat, and juggling driving, sound checks and shows while trying to find time to chat with a writer is a lot of work. When I finally did reach Cook, he was stuck in Chicago, having fallen victim to another scenario all too familiar to many touring acts.
"We're waiting for the van," he told me. "A couple of hoses ruptured, but it's not a huge deal. We're used to at least one minor fracture per tour." The band has toured this country, the U.K., Japan and Australia since October, and is now on their second U.S. tour, so clearly a few broken van parts won't faze them.
TAAS slithered together in wake of break-ups of the bands Kill Sadie and Botch. Cook and guitarist Ryan Frederiksen had been playing on the same bills in Seattle, and the pair met vocalist Steve Snere when he moved to town with his old band. The band sent an unsolicited demo to Jade Tree Records. "We sent them a cold demo, and forgot to put our return address on the tape," laughs Cook. "They knew that we were from Seattle, and the label ended up having to call around the city and track us down."
In 2003 they released the five track EP This Is Meant to Hurt You. Close on its heels, in 2004, was the well-received Oxeneers, or The Lion Sleeps When its Antelope Go Home.
During this period, though, the band underwent a Spinal Tap-like succession of drummers (including former Inlander Art Director Joe Preston) before settling down with Chris Common in time to record their second full length, which came after two years of touring. They returned to Seattle to record Easter, which some have pegged as a concept album about American society's slow creep towards a Christian dictatorship. (As a total aside, I find it delightful that two Northwest bands have released concept albums about religious fascism in the last year. I listened to Easter and the Thermals' The Body, the Blood, the Machine back to back, and not only do they both sound great, they totally made me want to go protest something.)
"The first record was very planned out; we went in to the recording process with the songs and lyrical progressions and the story all written out," says Cook. "For Easter, we wanted to concentrate first and foremost on making a record that was sonically very good and not worry so much about the theme. Steve ended up writing most of the lyrics in a very short period of time, and when that happens, your mind tends to focus on just a few things."
Easter succeeds where many political hardcore bands' records have failed: It manages to meld the personal and the political without seeming overly didactic or preachy. The band avoids veering into Rage Against the Machine territory quite nicely, keeping their lyrical content abstract enough to conjure up multiple interpretations. The album's opening track, "Mescaline Eyes," could almost be a throwback to Led Zeppelin, owing to its oddly placed solos. "Horse Girl" features a throbbing bass line and some open throated howls and screams from Snere. They veer off track on "Perpetual Bris," a pretty acoustic track that seems to discuss the worst nightmare of all the Jewish dudes I know. There are occasional lapses in judgment, like "Desert Ghost," a pretty but ultimately pointless instrumental track, but the strong tracks far outnumber the weak.
When asked to categorize the music his band makes, Cook tells me he prefers to include elements of different genres and "keep it pretty open ended." He adds, "We have some mathy elements, but we're not obsessed with playing in certain times or anything. In the end, we just want to produce stuff that is interesting and quality." At this point, we end the call, and Cook returns to the Chicago auto-repair shop to participate in the time-honored touring ritual: reading old Newsweek magazines and waiting for the Astrovan to roll again.
THE MATHY CHAOS
Anyone who defines two-handed tapping as the thing that Eddie Van Halen did should seriously consider re-characterizing it as the thing Maps and Atlases do. Where Eddie popularized the guitar technique with a few well-placed solos scattered throughout Van Halen's catalogue, Maps and Atlases have made it the signature and backbone of their sound.
With freneticism frequently giving over to spazz, their music is built around the staccato cascades and crescendos of guitarists Erin Elders and Dave Davison, creating a sound that is at once fluid and dappled with individual notes. Without delving unnecessarily into the mechanics of the technique (I'll leave that to Guitar Player, who, along with everyone from CMJ to the Chicago Tribune have written fawningly of Maps and Atlases' unique sound), tapping achieves intricate melodies by using both hands to strike the guitar strings at the frets, producing notes not unlike a keyboard.
Guitarists like Van Halen popularized it within a traditional rock context, creating wicked solos that blew minds by diverging wildly from the rest of their work. In contrast, Elders told Guitar Player he thinks some 60 percent of their guitar work is tapping. The band sustains the mathy chaos through so much of their debut EP's 25 minutes, though, that the percentage may be even higher than that.
These Arms Are Snakes are headlining the show for good reason. Maps and Atlases, though, are the kind of band whose virtuosity has the power to steal audiences out from under a headliner. Go. And take notes. -- LUKE BAUMGARTEN
Inlander Showcase Series #2 features These Arms Are Snakes, Maps and Atlases, TeeVee and To No Avail at the Service Station on Saturday, March 31 at 7 pm. $8; $10 at the door. Tickets available at ticketswest.com, by calling 325-SEAT, or by visiting either the Service Station, 4000 Holes, The Long Ear or the Inlander offices.