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On first listen to the Hives' new album Veni Vidi Vicious, it seems for a lingering moment that the Kinks and Ramones have been jointed and then drained through a vintage white-noise funnel, forming some kind of hissing-hot punk-rock chowder. When their classic lyrics lunge forth, as if from a lost era of true passion, we just know that something wicked has busted free of the usually fallow Swedish womb. "This is my middle finger," it says, perhaps toward the sub-contented music republic.
Holy hell. The music world could use a middle finger directed at it. Hearing something like that makes those of us who lack that devilish spirit want to gain it forthwith, to feel the song purposefully.
Second and third takes of the same song reveal the actual lyrics as they were written: "This is my main offender," it says, plain as day. So be it, great punk music is hard to comprehend and contains subliminal drive, right? Whatever the case, the Hives are willing to go hoarse if it means shaking the animal from a civilized music body. They say one thing, they mean another.
It has been awhile since anything Scandinavian, much less Swedish, came to the attention of the music public like this. (ABBA, no sir. Roxette...puh-lease!) The Hives are making it big with excessive distortion on their raw, garage-sounding Gibsons, aggressive hit-and-run arrangements, and modestly produced music. The songs don't settle, they burrow. They don't hesitate, they push. This is power-line rock 'n' roll. Swedish explorer Baron Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld undoubtedly combed the Scandinavian land- and soundscapes during the 1800s for just this kind of treasure. Yet the Hives emerge more than a century later, and the first thing we do is sling American tags on them like "Euro-Strokes" and the "White Stripes revisited"? Surely we jest.
"It's natural to compare the Hives to the White Stripes and Strokes," explains guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem over the phone from Fagersta, Sweden. "Mostly because there is nothing else to compare us to that is current. You wouldn't compare us to Limp Bizkit, right?" Good point. (And praise be to God for that!) Even so, the comparisons are misleading. You're not likely to hear the Hives at the local Gap (as you will the Strokes), and they definitely don't dance around the rock-genre sombrero like the Stripes do. Hives music is decisively and distinctively Hives music. They're engraved with suavity and mystique, from their ascots to their shimmering white shoes--an ensemble that was "initially designed to annoy people, and it just stuck," according to Vigilante.
Going through the Hives' roster, you're likely to think they'd wear orange jumpsuits rather than spiffy black and white. Members are randomly assigned names like Howlin' Pelle Almqvist (vocals) and Dr. Matt Destruction (bass), or Chris Dangerous (drummer) and Nicholaus Arson (guitar). These are the underlying plays on fantasy that give the Hives a not-everything-is-so-serious edge--a lesson learned the hard way by a great many rock outfits elsewhere. When Lennon proclaimed the Beatles bigger than Jesus back in the day, he was both tongue-in-cheek and serious, simultaneously. Same concept with the Hives: Strike where it counts, musically--the rest is water-cooler conversation, speculation, and dross.
The band has been together since 1993, when they were all 14 years old and Almqvist's voice still cracked. They thumbed through a dictionary and said, "We shall call ourselves the Hives." It has a nice punk sting, the consensus went. The quintet's juvenile beginnings have helped them maintain their innocence, and a kind of springtime punk-rock music has emerged, with bottled youthful exuberance. Songs like "Hate to Say I Told You So" and "Supply and Demand" aren't likely to induce yawning--rather, they seek to motivate. "State Control" and that deceiving "Main Offender" trip the circuits on the nervous system; they're straight manna for the yearning soul.
Are the Kinks and the Ramones, or bands like GBH and Swedish group the Backyard Babies, the inspiration for the Hives sound? "I was into Little Richard," says Vigilante. Huh? "We are just into good music. It would be hard to pinpoint all the sources of inspiration." After all, it has taken nine years, and a stint with Burning Heart Records, a Swedish label that released their first album, to sift through experience and reach a heightened, cult-like rock status that is reminiscent of Nirvana's crash into the mainstream. (Veni Vidi Vicious was originally released on Epitaph two years ago and was recently rereleased on Sire.)"I personally like the Swedish acts Soundtrack of Our Lives and...Randy," Vigilante continues.
Indeed, Randy Fitzsimmons, a kind of crimson ghost both tangible and real, is the core of the Hives music. He is credited with writing the bulk of the songs on Veni Vidi Vicious. Vigilante calls him the "sixth member" of the band but remains vague about any other details. Fitzsimmons handles a mean joystick--but he does so invisibly, and for that we should be thankful.
Of course, the true mark of a great rock band is how they perform live, and the Hives real-time show is something special. It's the apotheosis of mod rock. An epiphany to those who have given up on rock music in general.