I heard a sound from heaven like the noise of rushing water and the deep roar of thunder; it was the sound of harpers playing their harps. There before the throne, and the four living creatures and the elders, they were singing a new song. That song no one could learn except the 144,000, who alone from the world had been ransomed.
The A Frames are rock and roll atheists, doubting Thomases of rock's epiphanies, ticket-stub noncollectors. Yet despite their skepticism of the rock doctrine, the A Frames are still, to bottom-line it, a rock and roll band— maybe the best one we've got. They are aware of, and even embarrassed by, that contradiction. The albums and singles preceding the new Black Forest (Sub Pop) came out with the fanfare of a drunk teen sneaking home four hours past curfew with a murder weapon hidden in his jeans. That the releases' respective labels lack exposure is only partially to blame.
To thrive in rock and roll, a person has to be one of three things: stupid, conceited, or downwardly mobile (the same, not coincidentally, is true of rock critics). Stupid because you have to believe in Almost Famous–isms proclaiming music's redemptive powers (more often, music is a catalyst for therapy-by-chord); conceited because you have to believe you're worth listening to; and downwardly mobile as a catch-all for people too self-aware to fall for rock's self-fulfilling prophesies, but who still play the game in their own slapdash way. To describe Stephen Malkmus, the epitome of today's downwardly mobile rock star, The New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote, "I don't know him, but I know people who resemble him—people who are strikingly intelligent but make a point of avoiding career paths that reward intelligence as a matter of course."
The A Frames—with their cacophonous, paranoid, and defiantly exospective punk—certainly fit Ross' bill. Though their songs are littered with spelling-bee words and Popular Mechanics jargon, they still come off as anti-intellectual within the contemporary equivalence of intellect with technological know-how. The vast majority of singer/guitarist Erin Sullivan's lyrics display a distrust of industrialization and technology and a fear of man's eventual irrelevance at the hands of machines.
The tenacity and regularity—it's harder to find a song in the A Frames catalog that doesn't focus on these topics than ones that do—of his protests suggest that he himself doubts mankind's future. Black Forest, the band's third album and first on Sub Pop, lays out the band's case against industrialization most plainly. It's essentially a transcendentalist dystopia—call it Walden Parking Lot. On "Black Forest III," Sullivan chants eco-terror aspirations/nightmares over mushroom-cloud squeals and distorted thumps: "No burgers no sports no jokes/Civilization was a hoax . . . /No organism left to grow/Black Forest and fallout snow." Delivered monotonously, Sullivan's ultimate reaction to Armageddon is disinterest. "Kill it all," his lack of tone seems to say. "You're just saving me the trouble."
As innovation and progressare seemingly dubious notions to Sullivan (who works by day as a photo archivist), it would stand to reason that the music that accompanies his lyrics would be decidedly antique, even bucolic. Not so. Borrowing from the idea of Kraftwerk—electronic music for an electronic world, but tweaking it till it more closely resembles fucked music for a fucked world—the A Frames are the ultimate techno band, even if their albums are recorded straight to acetate and 808's only significance to them is as the Hawaiian area code.
Sullivan's linear guitar parts lean heavily on the Fall and the lesser-known but equally great Country Teasers: Riffs build note-by-note and string-by-string, like playing connect-the-dots with stars to magically conjure constellations. Min Yee's bass pops and locks like a B-boy, its four thick strings mechanically violent in their abruptness. And Lars Finberg's drumming moves as if attached to a piston; to dance to it is to swivel, not swing.
Though the band's devotion to industrial precision is absolute, there are a handful of softer moments across its catalog, and they are among the group's best. On 2002's A Frames, Sullivan declared his devotion to a surveillance camera in the wonderful "Surveillance": "I see your green light grow/That's all I have to know/You're here with me tonight/And it will be alright," he near croons. The heartbreaking "Weissensee," an instrumental B-side to their early "Crutches" single, sobs, squeals, and exhales as the feedback-saddled guitar and the funeral-procession beat do the Dance of the Seven Veils, shoulders shaking with tears and ecstasy.
"Eva Braun," Black Forest's sole almost love song and the band's finest moment to date, opens with Sullivan angrily mourning: "Eva Braun/You are the one/Whose beauty lives/When you are gone/You lived a lie/You looked away/You saw blue sky/When sky was gray." The midtempo accompaniment mimics Sullivan's conflict—he detests his affection for Hitler's mistress—as the guitar, bass, and drums clash and bleed into one another. (The subject matter seems odd, but consider that, like Sullivan, Braun worked in a photography laboratory.) The greatest moment comes via an A Frames rarity: a guitar solo. Referencing the open-tuned clangs of Public Image Ltd.'s masterpiece "Poptones," "Eva Braun" erupts with discordant shards of bending guitar strings, and the song suddenly finds its moral anchor as the harsh notes liberate the deep disappointment at the song's core.
Moments of such catharsis are uncommon for the A Frames. The horrible nightmares and even worse dreams have dismantled any hope for reform, and even hope itself. As T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Wasteland," "A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief." But even within Eliot's desperation, nostalgia and fractured optimism still survived, even if by delusion. The A Frames, however, don't believe in belief, have no faith in faith. As they sang in their own "Wasteland," from 2003's 2, "I want to watch the smoke rise/I want to look in your eyes/I want your hand in my hand/ I want to walk the wasteland."