The term “rock and roll” has reached a very special place that is only reserved for a scant number of words and phrase: that of utter absurdity. It has been compartmentalized, sub-divided, and affixed, mired into meaningless relationships with prefixes like “punk” and “post”, wholly lost and entrenched into the common parlance and social discourse of our times. Hollow culture whores tell us that they’re going to rock our collective bodies; salesmen pitching useless computer add-ons gleefully exclaim that “this is rock and roll!” Occasionally, it seems that the only recourse that we’re left with is to adopt the motto of the so-called “defenders” of common decency and take the route of abject subjectivity; we can only emphatically declare that while we can’t really define rock and roll anymore, we’ll know it when we hear it.
So what are the faithful to do? The reactionaries fearfully clutch their copies of Exile on Main Street and Tommy a little closer to their chests, declaring rock and roll to have died with the advent of the ’70s; on the other side, the revolutionaries shakily wave their tattered flag of progression, trumpeting the latest grave-robbing Johnny-come-lately — hailing from a long line of pretenders to the MC5 throne — as their modern messiah. But their actions remain the same; both camps furiously cry “we fear change!” while scrawling “STAGNATION = DEATH” on yellowed flyers and ragged magazine adverts. And that’s very nice and all, but there is more at stake here than mere balance: either rock and roll is a genre, inextricably bound to a certain time and place, or it is categorical in the most basic sense of the word, a phenomenon that is ultimately at once pervasive and self-contained. It is either only a means to its own ultimately futile end, or an active participant in shared social discourse. Optimistically speaking, we shouldn’t have to recognize rock and roll; it should recognize us, pounding our collective asses into the dirt with a flurry of acidic guitar noise and sneering condescendence. And you know what? The optimists might win out after all. Ladies and gents, girls and boys, let me present one of the most vital and important rock bands working today: Hot Snakes.
The Snakes should be more than familiar to some; hailing from the sunny climes of San Diego, primary members Rick Froberg and John Reis first made their respective names in post-hardcore band Pitchfork. They would later pursue other projects: Reis flirted with minor major label success as the frontman for garage-cum-grease punkers Rocket from the Crypt, and both would eventually attain indie immortality as the founders of the seminal math-punk band Drive Like Jehu. The two eventually split up after the release of Jehu’s final album Yank Crime, to later reunite under the Hot Snakes moniker, with Delta 72 drummer Jason Kourkounis in tow.
With that type of pedigree, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the first two outings from the Snakes offered nothing more than a stark amalgamation of Jehu and RFTC, combining the latter’s poppier sensibilities with the former’s frantic angular guitar lashings. The first two albums — Automatic Midnight and Suicide Invoice, respectively — clocked in at around half-an-hour, and most of the songs didn’t stray over the three minute mark. But the Snakes crafted an utterly primal sound that was at once familiar yet progressive, drawing equal inspiration from the garage acts of the late ’60s, proto-punkers like the MC5 and Crime, and the more cerebral post-punk of acts like Wire and Mission of Burma. The guitars would alternately cut and scorch, the rhythm section would teeter dangerously between restraint and reckless abandon, and Froberg’s urgent yelps and screams transformed tossed-off one-liners into acerbic statements of fact; otherwise facile declarations like “The older you get / The less you’re worth” (from Suicide Invoice‘s opening track, “I Hate the Kids”) suddenly resounded with the same weight as the truth. And while the band’s latest album, Audit in Progress, doesn’t tinker extensively with the formula set down in their past releases, it does further refine their hectic sensibilities into a leaner, more efficient structure.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are no differences at all. The most noticeable change is in the rhythm section, with percussion duties now handled by Mario Rubalcaba. His drumming is more crisp and controlled than Kourkounis’s often frenzied style, and consequently lends many of the songs a sense of focus that they previously lacked. This is immediately evident in the first two tracks, “Braintrust” and “Hi-Lites”; while both are propelled by a frantic, pulsing beat, the firm and steady rhythm laid out by Rubalcaba and bassist Gar Wood help to keep the anxious, chaotic guitars from spiraling out of control. But Rubalcaba also provides a certain dynamism that was often missing from the Kourkounis’s wild 4/4 pounding. Tracks like “Retrofit” and “Think About Carbs” benefit greatly from the jerky start-stop cadence provided by the drums, lending Froberg’s near-hysterical vocals an additional sense of urgency.
Froberg and Reis’s guitar antics showcase a slightly more subtle change, as they seem to be more reined-in than in previous outings. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the guitars are not as loud or as abrasive as in their other albums, but the occasional noisy freak-out has been replaced by careful restraint, and an often unexpected melodic sensibility sneaks its way in on several of the tracks. The title track is almost catchy enough to sing along with, and a few other tracks — like “Kreative Kontrol” and “Hatchet Job” — have a fist-pumping, anthem-like quality about them. But the best tracks on the album — namely “This Mystic Decade” and closing track “Plenty for All” — bear only a slight resemblance to the blistering punk-edged workouts that the Snakes built their name on. The former rides along atop a guitar that’s equal parts Dick Dale and Wayne Kramer, propelled by a beat that trades in both dark menace and poppy bounce; the latter employs a sprightly major-scale note progression over palm-muted power chords, laying down the foundations for the surprisingly optimistic lyrics. It might seem strange that the same man who was so frantically yelling about being “Murdered at home / Murdered away” (“Hair and DNA”) is now spouting upbeat lines like “Southern California / Let’s go! / There’s room for us all” and “Take it or leave it / Do both if you choose”. However, it works well, and serves as a somewhat appropriate balance to the album’s otherwise scorching and ultimately vitriolic attack.
Admittedly, these are minor changes, but it is perhaps for the best; after all, the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true for a reason. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that adjustments can’t be made; machines can be adjusted for maximum effectiveness, and old methods and formulas can be made more efficient. Hot Snakes isn’t the type of band to go about re-inventing the wheel, and they never claimed to be. Nonetheless, every small alteration lends a new dynamic to their well-worn sound, and every new album finds them adding additional punch to their gut-wrenchingly visceral assault. And if the framework that the Snakes ply their trade in ever sounds familiar, it is only because these gentlemen are channeling a different time period, when the term “rock and roll” actually had meaning. Progression can be over-rated; occasionally, the efficacy of the structure is more important.