Perhaps the worst aspect of the underground hardcore scene is its tendency to shun innovation. After twenty-five years, it’s disheartening to read reviews that slam hardcore bands because they don’t sound “pure” enough. Because of this mindset, Seattle’s These Arms are Snakes find themselves lampooned as sell-outs within certain hardcore circles and hailed as groundbreakers in others. Turns out, they aren’t really either.
The band’s debut, the ostentatiously titled Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home, incorporates the hardcore and prog elements that were evident in the members’ previous bands, Botch and Kill Sadie, and a healthy appreciation of classic rock. The band chokes the mix down and throws it back up to make an occasionally worthwhile if ultimately vapid album.
Opener “The Shit Sisters” begins with a jarring electronic beat that fades into a rhythmic assault thanks to fill-in drummer Erin Tate (on loan from Minus the Bear.) Singer Steve Snere snarls his way through the maelstrom of jagged guitars, weaving a story about privileged kids, 401(k) plans and the stock market. Lyrically, many songs feature similar stories about the state of American families and the goal of wealth. (Has it ever been anything else?) The second track, “Angela’s Secret,” is the album’s strongest: A deep synth riff builds a backbone over a tumbling beat before the token screaming part — which this band perfects — all overlaid with Ryan Frederiksen’s adept metal riff-age.
As the album continues, though, it quickly loses steam. Songs begin to blur together and the formula becomes predictable: A keyboard intro bursts into traditional guitar/bass/drums before the screaming starts. “Tracing” sounds like an earnest ballad until you realize it sounds like it would have been one of the best emo songs of 1996. Matt Bayles’s production (who’s made a name producing the Blood Brothers, Isis and Pretty Girls Make Graves) allows Frederiksen’s guitar to sit naked atop the recording. It becomes a cloying excess in its needless spotlighting.
Because of hardcore’s limitations, any variations tend to sound like a reinvention of the wheel, almost as if the band is discovering the sounds for the first time. While sometimes endearing, more often it is simply what it is: something we’ve heard before. These Arms Are Snakes is an example of the latter. There are moments of melodic inspiration, but Oxeneers has little new to offer. That’s not in itself an indictment, but when the band seems to hold claim to its uniqueness, it’s something that must be pointed out.