Seattle’s A Frames haven’t developed much at all since their self-titled debut on the tiny S-S label a few years back. Instead, as their name suggests (a great one, by the way, even if it is hellishly inconsiderate toward lesser internet search engines), A Frames have been following a precise blueprint and attempting to perfect their construction. Black Forest, then, proudly stands as a culmination of everything the band has tried, and even stretches beyond it all. By adding a sense of direction and a stronger hint at self-awareness, A Frames have successfully arranged their songs, a muddle of interchangeable spinning cogs and axles, into a functioning machine; they’ve given life to a nasty little robot that will undoubtedly fulfill its own hopes and dreams in a world that once belonged to humankind.
A Frames know their sound well: abrasive, sloppy axe lines or angular, methodical grindings that alternately dodge and collide with one of the thickest backbone rhythm sections that post-punk has to offer. A Frames are a trio who have no interest in typical, taut power, especially when the option of chaos lingers overhead. They choose to maintain the difficult tension between structure and noise, a raucously Fall-like riff-and-repeat technique that matches the robotic precision of Devo with the total disregard of early Sonic Youth. Their refusal to break that tension is relentless, even long after their audience needs release. However, any complaints brought about by restlessness generated as the album unfolds are remedied by its ultimate progression, as Black Forest finally comes undone.
Along the way, however, A Frames stick to the safer (and lighter!) side of their formula. Songs like “Experiment”, “Galena”, and “Memoranda” are the most accessible. By juxtaposing the intense rhythmic thud with a somewhat playful delivery on singer/guitarist Erin Sullivan’s part and the occasional backing vox by bassist Min Yee — no doubt a graduate from the Kim Deal school — A Frames achieve a near-Pixies approach to their songs, infusing them with a perverse sense of cheerfulness. “U Boat” even sounds like a track from Surfer Rosa. Though Sullivan sounds nothing like Frank Black, the main similarity between the two bands is that similar sense of tension. But while the Pixies’ equilibrium often boiled over within individual songs, A Frames keep theirs going for the duration of a record. And despite some concessions to their own formula, A Frames never revert to pop predictability. They most likely won’t get heavy exposure on MTV2 or single remixes by Tom Lord-Alge.
Still, the record comes alive when the band starts to break free. A Frames often seem to write songs around Lars Finberg’s often-stunning drum patterns, but the structure can often force the band into a corner. “Eva Braun”, perhaps the first song on the album with no trace of new wave influence, thankfully slows down the pace and mucks up the sound a bit. Sullivan is almost unintelligible as he mutters through the bass that washes over the song, but the lyrical subject matter — literally about Hitler’s girlfriend — is a far cry from the typical math-and-technology feel that he has cultivated over the last three years. (The song also avoids such awkward rhymes as “uniform” and “cuneiform”, found elsewhere on the album.) “Quantum Mechanic”, noisier than anything on the first half of the record, threatens to be extraordinarily heavy and squarely foreshadows what’s to come. While Sullivan sounds a bit spacier, the bottom end of the music is full of static and distortion. In “My Teacher”, five different vocal narratives, all saying the same thing, approach from varying angles accompanied by a gentle (for A Frames) bass line that wavers back and forth like giant swings of a pendulum. While its isolated experimentalism makes it feel like filler, its creepiness lends something to Black Forest‘s building momentum. By “Negative”, oppressive bursts of noise and frenzied playing completely overrun the song.
The obvious showcase of the album’s progression is reflected in the title track, a recurring theme in three parts broken up over the course of the album. As an introductory snippet, “Black Forest I” immediately demonstrates the band’s calling cards, especially in the insistent rhythm, the reverbed bass, and the scrapings of guitar. Electronic effects and a deep atmosphere help enhance the sound, serving as an adequate reminder that underneath the onslaught of lyric-oriented songs to follow are any number of intricate and accomplished sonic backdrops. By the song’s later reoccurrence, which adds Sullivan’s doom-laden and deceptively deadpan vocals, all the ingredients have increased in intensity yet lost significant precision. As on other tracks, Sullivan himself is yet another source of tension; something about his delivery lends itself to enthusiastic hilarity, even while describing the earth after its utter annihilation. This caged sardonicism is a fundamental ingredient of the band’s enthusiasm and sense of fun. Yet, by the album’s conclusion with the unbridled “Black Forest III”, no sense of silliness remains. Every level is in the red. Though the lyrics are the same, the noise from each instrument seeps into the others, removing all the space. By overloading the track with delay and reverb, it becomes nearly industrial. And then it kicks in; the world is literally destroyed by noise. The lone trace of humanity remaining — that voice reciting the title at the end — is buried by the ash.
Above all, A Frames are intelligent life-forms, keenly aware of what they can accomplish, but never at the expense of their freedom or energy. As partygoers who know they can have exactly 12 shots before they pass out, A Frames quickly down 11 of them and then proceed to run carelessly around the room trashing the furniture. Sub Pop, a label known for nurturing such wayward progeny, was right to embrace A Frames at this stage of their development. With a lot of artistic ground yet to cover, A Frames need an environment that will allow their strengths to flourish. In the mean time, Black Forest should make a great entry point for anyone not familiar with their infant years, highlighting their already-mastered brand of scuzzy-yet-mechanical punk groove.