Black Forest (Sub Pop)
With “Fury Road,” the fourth Mad Max movie, on indefinite hiatus, not even professional gossips can be bothered to speculate about whether Tina Turner will reprise her Aunty Entity role from Beyond Thunderdome. (“We Don’t Need Another Hero,” remember?) Personally, I’m still pissed that the screenwriters killed off Lord Humungus–“the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rollah!”–in The Road Warrior, but I’m prepared to let bygones be bygones and offer the producers some free advice. If you want a real live band in your movie–not just on the sound track but actually on-screen, toiling in a shower of broken bottle glass like the Blues Brothers or the Mono Men–talk to the A Frames. They’re from Seattle, and on March 22 they put out their third album, Black Forest, on Sub Pop.
Hollywood types tend to trot out embarrassing ersatz bands when they want to offer us a peek at the Degenerate Culture of a World Gone to Shit. Sub-Ministry industrial grind is a favorite, though overdriven drum machines have never signified “postapocalyptic” to anybody but self-pitying goth kids with hyperactive imaginations. Or we get a bunch of wiry, bug-eyed troglodytes dressed up like the Exploited, as if the collapse of civilization has somehow triggered a nostalgia for tuneless early-80s hardcore. As an attempt to simulate the music people would play after living through the end of the world, this isn’t just lazy; it’s totally wrongheaded. Positing a GBH knockoff as the inevitable by-product of a dead-end future demonstrates about as much imagination as dressing the women aboard the original Enterprise in miniskirts.
I’m not completely convinced that industrial music will die when industrial civilization does. But old-school punk rock–a genre fueled by disgust, nihilism, and outrage–will almost certainly undergo a radical change in form if the culture that provoked its contempt in the first place actually goes tits up. That’s why the A Frames are the perfect Mad Max band. Instead of rooting for the apocalypse without wondering what’ll happen after the smoke clears, they imagine that the final calamity has already befallen us: “No churches no garbage cans / No punk no garage bands / No organism left to grow / Black forest and fallout snow.” How will the survivors carry on? Not by ranting and raving and bashing out power chords–raging against the machine is finally genuinely pointless, because the machine has broken down. To function at all, anybody still walking and talking will have to keep his terror and grief ruthlessly under control, buried deeper than a NORAD bunker.
The A Frames are just that ruthlessly under control. Their music is efficient and austere, the vocals flat and almost affectless. The basic sound is brutal and ugly in a familiar way–corrosive guitar, churning bass, methodical drums–but it’s shorn of the scattershot anger and confrontational wildness of classic punk. Instead it feels maniacally, ascetically focused. Sometimes the drum part is the same bludgeoning four-beat bar over and over again for the entire song, without a single fill. The squared-off riffs always repeat in sets of two or four, with parts dropping in or out according to simple verse-chorus structures. The infrequent guitar solos are brief and bitten off. There’s never a wasted note, never one last shout-along chorus to get the boys’ fists in the air. The Web site for Dragnet Records, a label partly run by members of the band, says the A Frames scrapped the recordings from the first Black Forest sessions because they sounded “too punchy and warm.” These are guys who’d feel right at home in a world afflicted with such privation that a few barrels of gasoline could provoke a bloody fight to the death.
On the LP version of the band’s previous album, A Frames 2, released in 2003 by Sacramento punk guru Scott Soriano on S-S Records, the three members aren’t credited at all. But on Black Forest they use the pseudonyms they’ve played under at least since their 2000 Dragnet seven-inch, “Neutron Bomb.” Guitarist and front man Erin Sullivan is identified as “Emphysema,” bassist Min Yee as “Cholera,” and drummer Lars Finberg as “Ricketts.” The CD’s nearly featureless slipcover is printed to look like it’s made of torn black gaffer’s tape, with the group’s name punched through it to show the black background behind.
It’s always tempting to insist that a band’s first outing on a major (or a major indie) doesn’t meet the standard set by some long-out-of-print single on a living-room label. But if I inoculate my brain against I-knew-’em-when syndrome, I can’t deny that some of the tracks on the new disc–“Galena,” “Black Forest II,” “Death Train”–are as perversely catchy as old favorites like “Neutron Bomb” or “Electric Eye” (from the band’s 2002 debut LP, A Frames, coreleased by S-S and Dragnet). I still think “Neutron bomb / Antipersonnel” is the best chorus since “Wooly Bully,” but “Galena” has its own secret weapon. The song’s stiff martial stomp lands hard on the first beat of every measure until the instrumental refrain, when we get a few bars of ass-shakin’ denim-jacket two-four and a squealing guitar line that actually has a little swing to it. Such is the power of this carefully rationed backbeat that you totally wanna dance–for 14 seconds at a time, anyway–even though the verses seem to be about a stranded miner waiting to run out of air.
Throughout Black Forest the A Frames seem to see the present with hopeless detachment, like time travelers who’ve come back to warn us about the end of the world and then realized they can’t do a thing to stop it from coming again. On “Negative” Sullivan chants, “I’m living in the future, living in the future, living in the future”–wait for it!–“tense.” His fixation on technology is freighted with pessimism, as though he’s witnessed the ultimate failure of the culture of the machine; the songs are full of suspect devices, like the dead breathing apparatus of “Galena” and the slowly sinking submarine of “U Boat.” Finberg’s bottom-heavy drumming, punctuated with crude body-shop clank–he likes to set a dented hubcap or cracked cymbal across the head of his snare–suggests an enormous derelict engine, held together with baling wire and turning over so slowly and steadily you can hear every cylinder fire. Even the rare electronic overdub usually sounds like a jury-rigged machine breaking down. “Experiment” opens and closes with a wobbly dentist-drill drone, and the outro to “Black Forest III” is smothered in hissing, shrieking analog keyboards, like a rhythm section of malfunctioning pneumatic brakes. This is the kind of futurism that assumes our grandchildren will have nothing to do but scavenge in the wreckage of our civilization after we drive the damn thing straight off a cliff.
Unsurprisingly, ancient ruins and vanished cultures also figure into Sullivan’s lyrics. In “Flies” he makes a reference to the burial of Pompeii: “In the ancient city / AD seven nine / Frozen in ash / Smothered in time.” And the almost poppy “Memoranda” opens with the lines, “Like notches carved in bones / Like pictographic stones / In fragments and on cliffs / I read your hieroglyphs.” In this case there’s enough wiggle room to read the archaeological stuff as metaphorical: the implied “you,” who knows the speaker’s future, could be a romantic partner just as easily as an extinct graffiti artist, in the grand rock ‘n’ roll tradition of writing love songs disguised as almost anything else.
Here and there this kind of fault line–the potential for a playful alternate take on a poker-faced tune–fractures the group’s otherwise oppressively single-minded aesthetic. On their albums the A Frames expertly impersonate anhedonic drones–“nobots,” to borrow one of their own terms–but in the real world they play in a rock band, which is one of the greatest part-time jobs ever. Sometimes I think I can hear Sullivan poking fun at his own grim persona: he must be translating anything and everything into the idiom of apocalyptic 1950s sci-fi with the knowledge that half of it’s gonna come out so incongruous and over-the-top it’ll sound like a joke. “Wasteland” (from A Frames 2) is a schizophrenic stomper with a funereal bass line, lots of jaunty tambourine, and lyrics that perfectly wed two senses of the word smoldering: “I want to watch the smoke rise / I want to look in your eyes / I want your hand in my hand / I want to walk the wasteland.” And “Surveillance” (from A Frames) is a ballad about a man who falls in love with a security camera.
Of course, it’s risky to assume a band intends to be funny when its music seems so serious–get it wrong and it’s like congratulating a woman on her pregnancy when all she’s done is put on 15 pounds over Christmas. But I’m happy to leave the question open until the A Frames turn up in “Fury Road”–at which point I’ll consider myself in on the joke.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.