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A Frames - Black Forest

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Artist: A Frames

Album: Black Forest

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Apr. 7, 2005

The A Frames have what most every artist is looking for – an immediately recognizable sound. Songs are simple but eccentric. They plod menacingly, driven by loud basslines and deadpan vocals, with jolts of noise punctuating the paranoid lyrics. The themes are dark, and while they never smirk or wink, their technophobia is so persistent that an irony shines through.

Black Forest is their third album, and the first to receive wide distribution, but the approach hasn't changed. As before, each track is defined by a blunt beat. Jagged bass and guitars layer over the drums, sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes leaving gaps. The guitar riffs, detuned and minimal, feel almost arbitrary, held in sway by the rhythm section. The singer, billed as Emphysema, provides the warmest tone, talking his way through nightmares as dryly as a script-reading telemarketer. This is mad scientist rock.

Of all the bands trading in post-punk clang the last few years, the A Frames have matched it to this decade's pulse the best: there's is a lot of violence in their sound, but a disturbing calm. It's like the side-effect warnings in a pharmaceutical commercial, or a Department of Defense press conference; they shouldn't be so emotionless, given what they’re describing.

Temperatures remains below freezing, but the band’s jump to the underground giant Sub Pop includes a few new flares. On "Flies," acoustic guitar is prominent for the first time, swirling through a long scale, suggesting some lurking musicianship that they otherwise disguise. There’s more backing vocals and multi-tracking, and they work the title track over three times, coaxing a harsher beat with each take. Song titles like "Eva Braun,” "U Boat,” and "Death Train" suggest an unnerving concept record about Nazi Germany. But it never materializes. They play with the morbid without establishing clear sentiments; like the holes they leave in the music, it's up to the listener to makes sense of their designs.

This is provocative stuff for a band that plainly appreciates primitive rock and roll and doesn't shy away from being catchy. As the line "death train rolling on its final ride" builds into a sing-along, it becomes nearly cheerful. They leave just enough hesitation in the beat to keep it from becoming a toe-tapper. They have a knack for making things just wrong.

If A Frames have a weakness, it's that they've plotted out an aesthetic too tightly. So far, they've been able to nudge their sound in new directions without diluting their strengths. Like Devo (who's wit they share), they could exhaust the possibilities early. Hopefully, like the Fall, another apt comparison, they can continue to find targets for their unique take on this troubled world. As is stands, they've made a string of albums that should hold up like the best from those iconic bands.

By Ben Donnelly

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