Sterling, Poison Arrows, Che Arthur Three
WHEN Thu 4/5, 9:30 PM
WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
There’s more to the cover art for the Poison Arrows record that came out last week–a four-song, 25-minute EP called Straight Into the Drift–than meets the eye. At first the image looks like the product of a few hours in Adobe Illustrator–a pale, gradient-heavy blob in the middle of a black background–but once you notice the handrail and steps at the blob’s lower edge, it becomes obvious you’re looking at a bird’s-eye photo of a swimming pool at night. (The drummer took it on a trip to Florida with his wife.) It’s dark and abstract, and though it has a clear shape, it’s hard to say exactly what that shape is–qualities shared by the avant-rock on the EP. The Poison Arrows work mostly in shades of black, and their shadowy songs trace the edges of the free-floating dread that will come to stand for America’s postmillennial years the same way drug-induced idealism works as shorthand for the late 60s.
When you listen to the record, it’s not too hard to guess what might’ve influenced the band. Adam Reach’s straightforward, stomping drums often suggest old punk and hardcore–though they’re sometimes so compressed and distorted they sound like a drum machine, recalling big-and-beaty 90s electronica. Guitarist and front man Justin Sinkovich, formerly of Thumbnail and Atombombpocketknife, sings in a sour, sullen voice, his minimal approach to melody just a notch above spoken word, a la Big Black or Slint. His guitar playing likewise downplays melody–dissonant and spidery, it’s all about rhythm and mood, and seems to take after half the bands on the post-Sonic Youth D.C. hardcore scene. And bassist Patrick Morris, formerly of Don Caballero, plays heavy, intricate lines that make him sound like John Entwistle reincarnated as an angry prog rocker. But though the Poison Arrows borrow most of their sonic vocabulary from aggressive, confrontational genres, they run the other way with those familiar signifiers. Their atmospheric music is sometimes dreamy, sometimes creepy, and often both at once.
Of course, the things bands seem to be influenced by and the things they claim to be influenced by rarely have much to do with one another. And just to figure out what the Poison Arrows claim to be influenced by, you have to triangulate. All three are music junkies–they claim to own more than 4,000 records apiece–but their listening habits only sometimes overlap. “Justin and I have a running thing,” Reach says, “where if I pick up a new record and I’m like, ‘This is awesome,’ he’ll be like, ‘Eh.'”
There are a few things they all agree on, though. They’re thirtysomething scene veterans who were playing in bands during the early-90s alt-rock boom, and they share a weakness for the underground giants of the time, especially the Jesus Lizard. They also enjoy out-there jazz, past and present, and follow Chicago’s thriving improv scene. The jazz influence manifests itself in the Poison Arrows’ music mostly through absences: they don’t use traditional verse-chorus rock structures, preferring to let parts mutate and drift into one another, and they don’t usually write endings, instead feeling their way through each song onstage. (The EP also contains improvised parts, but due to some heavy editing they don’t sound as spontaneous.)
Sinkovich acknowledges that moving to Chicago in the late 90s, when the city was still best known for post-rock, has had an effect on him. “I do hang out with all of these people who are well-respected post-rock musicians, and I think they’ve influenced me in a lot of ways,” he says. But despite the Poison Arrows’ spacious song structures and slow-evolving tunes, which regularly push seven minutes, their music isn’t post-rock: there’s no showy technique, no metrical oddness, no complexity for its own sake. And though Straight Into the Drift emphasizes mood, like most post-rock does, its mood is very different from the genre’s usual contemplative mellowness.
The vocals sound like they were recorded by a guy locked in a darkened room with a Dictaphone, and the music, despite the application of epic amounts of delay and reverb, is about as far as you can get from groovy and psychedelic–it’s somehow both spacey and claustrophobic, with a woozy feel that’s often outright unpleasant. “I’ve always been drawn to the darker elements, the morose elements, of any kind of music, even jazz,” says Reach. “I’m more into Miles when he was doing fusion, or Coltrane when he was completely smacked out. Because it’s coming from a completely different place.”
Morris and Sinkovich are both burned out on the careerist approach to bands, and Reach says he never had those ambitions in the first place. They’re putting out a record, sure, but it’s on File 13, the label Sinkovich runs in his spare time. They’ve all got day jobs; they don’t tour and have no plans to. They play when they want to, not when they feel they ought to–their rehearsal schedule is lax and their shows are few and far between. “We don’t feel like we have to practice three times a week and play Chicago every three months, Cleveland every three months, and all of that,” Sinkovich says.
The band started out as Sinkovich’s project, and in fact in 2004 he released an EP under the Poison Arrows name called Trailer Park–it’s essentially a solo disc, heavy on the electronics, with a few instrumental assists from friends. The Poison Arrows as they now exist started to come together in early 2005, when Sinkovich was recording Che Arthur, a former Atombombpocketknife bandmate, in his home studio. Reach was in on the session–he’s drummed with Arthur off and on for years–and during some downtime Sinkovich had him play around a little and taped him on the sly, hoping to find an alternative to the drum programming he’d been using. The two of them had already started expanding on some of Sinkovich’s works in progress when Morris joined, so all in all the songs on the new EP have been nearly two years in the making. Perversely, the Poison Arrows released a collection of “remixes” of the songs from Straight Into the Drift almost six months ago, before they’d even finished tweaking them for the EP.
This past fall they started working on their first full-length, recording the basic tracks at Electrical Audio. Everyone played at once this time, rather than laying down their parts in turn, and the band promises that the LP will have a more live sound, less oppressive and gloomy than the EP. Sinkovich’s obsessive Pro Tools tinkering on Straight Into the Drift–the songs were assembled like mosaics from tons of material–was in part responsible for its remarkable cohesion and consistent mood, but it’s also the main reason the record took so long to complete. He’s trying to limit the amount of time he spends working on any one project now, and to test his discipline he recently finished a remix for an art installation in Barcelona in one night.
The Poison Arrows are so absorbed in this new phase that they hadn’t touched the songs from Straight Into the Drift in months when they started rehearsing for Thursday’s release party at the Empty Bottle. It’s a little frustrating that they’re putting out something so good only once they’ve moved on from it. Listening to Drift, you have to ask why they’d want to move toward the light when they do darkness so well.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Creps.