[8 October 2008]
The early 2000s were a good time for post-hardcore fans. The first half of this decade saw the sub-genre redefined by a handful of pivotal releases: At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the Blood Brothers’ Burn, Piano Island, Burn and These Arms Are Snakes’ Oxeneers or the Lion Sleeps When its Antelope Go Home. Of the three bands cited, only These Arms Are Snakes (often abbreviated as TAAS) are still around, though that’s not too surprising, considering that the band was the youngest of the bunch, having formed from the ashes of Botch and Kill Sadie in 2003. A few months after releasing a promising EP, 2003’s This is Meant to Hurt You, the band returned with Oxeneers, a sprawling, complex and narrative-rich record that belied the band’s young age. Sure, the record was heavy, making good use of the crashing drums and mathy guitars that had long been a hallmark of the Pacific Northwest post-hardcore scene. But it was also by turns eerie, slinky and atmospheric. Unlike most of their peers, TAAS chose to temper the Oxeneers flashes of ferocity with prolonged, proggy codas and deep synth grooves. The end result was an album that both appreciated and fully exploited the familiar tension/release dynamic. Which is to say that These Arms Are Snakes once understood that the fear of a bite is sometimes worse than the venom itself.
Sadly, Tail Swallower & Dove, the band’s latest full-length, serves as a testament to how both TAAS and post-hardcore as a whole have lost the plot in recent years. The album continues the downward trajectory that began with 2006’s Easter, building on that album’s monotony, repetitiveness and tedium. If Oxeneers is the rare hardcore album that makes you think, Tail Swallower & Dove is the rare hardcore album that lulls you to sleep.
A substantial share of the blame can be placed on the album’s dynamics. Most of the LP’s 43-minute run time finds the band firing on all cylinders, largely abandoning the bait-and-switch technique employed on earlier releases. Opening number “Woolen Heirs” sounds like a mash-up of previous TAAS tunes, alternating between ringing guitars, pinch harmonics and squelchy synths, though an underpinning of palm-muted guitars chug throughout. “Prince Squid” is driven by a great double-bass drum beat but sounds more like hard rock, with repetitive bar chords anchoring vocalist Steve Snere’s yell-and-response vocals. Meanwhile, “Red Line Season” rocks like old TAAS, marrying a low organ growl with a series of finger-twisting riffs. While the song sounds promising at the outset, by the time we reach the chorus, it becomes quite clear that we’re not going to hear anything new.
Still, Tail Swallower & Dove isn’t all bad. “Lucifer” is anchored by a fantastic, compressed synth line that recalls the Blood Brothers’ “Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon”. The song’s drums tumble in fits and starts as Snere mumbles under his breath like a man at the end of his rope. Dishearteningly, however, the lyrics on “Lucifer”—or on any of the album’s other tracks, for that matter—aren’t worth pulling out the insert for. While Oxeneers chronicled the ennui, desperation and anxiety of blue-collar workers, single-mothers and office drones in a series of visceral, evocative narratives, the lyric sheet for Tail Swallower & Dove reads like a list of hardcore clichés. Most of the songs seem to address, in vague, largely inscrutable terms, either death, sex, decay or some combination thereof. If you’re going to write a record full of lyrically impenetrable songs, you might as well take a cue from Seattle’s patron saint of punk rock and at least hint at some deeper meaning.
Overall, Tail Swallower & Dove will fail to satisfy all but the most fervent TAAS fans. While the album sounds, at times, like the Snakes that we’ve come to know and love, it ultimately leaves the listener with little to chew on. Where previous TAAS records pushed forward into uncharted territory, Tail Swallower & Dove hopes only to evoke past glories, though its songs feel hollow and structurally simple by comparison. This isn’t entirely unexpected given the rut that post-hardcore seems to be mired in, but it’s still awfully disappointing. After all, These Arms Are Snakes were once looked to as leaders—now they’re just re-tracing the contours of their own past. Don’t let the cover fool you: this album is more sheep than wolf.