Crate-Digging: A Frames – Black Forest

(Sub Pop, 2005)

What’s with all the World War II–era German imagery here? As fascinating as plumbing the depths of a dark collective consciousness is, it’s not exactly the most, er, popular subject to tackle on a rock and roll record, albeit one that revels in post-industrial and post-punk styles. Right? Or am I being naïve to suggest that it’s inappropriate to write songs that make metaphorical (or literal, in some cases) connections to the purveyors of the worst atrocities in modern history?

I think we know the answer: That line of thinking is ridiculous. And fortunately for A Frames, they mimic the German industriousness of the first half of the twentieth century with very little humor, much like you’d expect from a cartoon Kraut as filtered through the lens of American television.

So I won’t be boycotting the History Channel after all.

(And side note: I myself have a rich German background, and consider myself a cartoon Kraut in some sense as well. Yes, I wore lederhosen at least once as a child.)

But the real truth? I think the members of A Frames were bored, and co-opting this style was something they thought would be cool. Turns out it was. Or at least they make it sound like it is.

As if the album title itself wasn’t a dead giveaway, the songs are peppered with Nazi language, jutting angularly from the back of the album cover in sharp defiance to good taste and societal norms. Just like the good punks they are, they jettison any sense of caution on tracks such as “Death Train,”* “Eva Braun,” “U-Boat,” and the title track. Unlike troublemakers hell-bent on pushing legal limits as well as those of acceptability in their performance, A Frames do rein in any sense of offensiveness in their subject matter and co-opt the images for a coldly benign run-through of universal impressions of death and destruction.

That’s the long way to say, relax. A Frames aren’t Nazi sympathizers. Lift your jaws off the floor and return to your tea and scones.

*Doesn’t “Death Train” sound like it could pass for the premise of some sort of haunted train horror movie? You know, along the lines of the Gabriel Byrne / Julianna Marguiles spookfest (read “crapfest”) Ghost Ship? Why not Death Train, starring Seann William Scott, Eliza Dushku, and LL Cool J? I’m pretty sure that’s a blockbuster right there, with the teenage crowd. (Those are all actors, right?)

The Seattle trio does have a pedigree befitting their oddball proclivities, as vocalist/guitarist Erin Sullivan (a guy!), bassist Min Yee, and drummer Lars Finberg have appeared in, according to various online outlets, some of the weirder musical incarnations to come out of the city, including The Dipers, The Un-Natural Helpers (I love that name for some reason), and the relatively-higher-profile The Intelligence, Finberg’s brainchild. So there’s some snotty punk-ness, but a dark snottiness like that of The Birthday Party but cut with the more palatable hyperactivity of Devo. So you never really know whether or not the whole thing’s an elaborate put-on in the end, but you can pretty much hazard an educated guess on the intent of the “shock tactics.” It’s antisocial behavior for the sake of being antisocial.

The Birthday Party’s a good starting point for a comparison, as Sullivan’s baritone rides the chaotic instrumentation like a drill sargeant’s bellow, but is much more metronomic than Nick Cave’s unhinged howl – even so, the timbre rings the same. But A Frames are a little safer than Cave’s crew, believe it or not – I don’t think any members of the Seattle trio are or have been strung out on heroin. (I could be wrong. I doubt it though.)

But like any good industrial band (or, like A Frames merely inspired by industrial music), melodies are buried under industrial-strength distorted bass and guitars that sound like they’re being played with jagged scraps of sheet metal. “Experiment,” “Death Train,” “Memoranda,” and “Negative” – and pretty much every song on the album – screech and wail as such, like a drunken, er, death train as it were. Slower (read: “moodier”) tunes like “Eva Braun” and “Flies” are more sinister – seasick countermelodies play against rigid basslines for an obviously intentional uncomfortable experience. “Black Forest” itself is a suite in three parts, each more bombastic than the last – by the time “Black Forest III” rolls around closing the album, the din is aggravating and the instruments sound as if they’re angrily strangled rather than played. It’s the perfect way to end the record.

So it’s industrial with a sense of humor, then, that it really winds up being. Hey, the band has even released music on S-S Records! Oh, wait, that’s actually producer Scott Soriano’s label – my bad. The Nazi thing. S-S. Forget it.

RIYL: The Birthday Party, Liars, Devo




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