Snake, Rattle, and Roll

Our outfits were paid in cigarettes: Hot Snakes

Our outfits were paid in cigarettes: Hot Snakes

Forget what the Who told you: The kids are not all right. In fact, they're contemptible. Would you believe that's what the opening track on Hot Snakes' sophomore album Suicide Invoice, affectionately titled "I Hate the Kids," suggests? The track's brief intro pairs the bass and guitar in driving unison with an ominous drum beat, creating a serpentine soundscape that all but simulates two advancing snakes closing in at top speed on... what? Some unsuspecting kid? This predatory pursuit ends only when singer Rick Froberg's acidic vox jump in. It's a damn forceful opening, and one that foretells just how many ugly faces the album will make before all is said and done.

Architecturally minimalist, Hot Snakes craft songs that clock in almost exclusively under three minutes in length. An exception is "Paid in Cigarettes," a whopping four-minute job that is shyer than any on the album in muscularity, but richer in melody. Yet Hot Snakes are not afraid to slither in different directions. On "Unlisted," the California-beachcomber flavors show up like bright-red pox when a random surf interlude kicks in: Imagine Dick Dale making a guest appearance on a Dead Milkmen album. At other times, Froberg's delivery sounds nearly hickified, recalling the quavering voice of Jason Mason of Wiskey Biscuit. These sonic variations flout any strict rules of cohesion--a true punk act if ever there was one.

When Hot Snakes formed in 1999, anybody familiar with their guitarist, John "Speedo" Reis, assumed that the band was just another in a long line of side projects by the mastermind who never seemed to sit still. After all, he was the frontman for the decade-old and still rotisserieing punk-rock machine known as Rocket From the Crypt, which he saw through nine stellar albums. Reis doubled as the guitarist for pioneering hardcorists Drive Like Jehu in the mid-Nineties--giving him claim to two of the best noise-spewing rock bands ever to emerge from San Diego. Of course, he also started a grassroots indie label, Swami Records, which he pledged to punk music through the release of scene-spanning compilation disks and full-length live albums by outfits like the Swinging Neckbreakers. And that's not all: He also played for and produced a number of punk atrocities--from the Locust to Run for Your Fucking Life--in his spare time. Either Reis suffers from an advanced form of untreated ADD, or he just has it bad for punk rawk. Either way, there is no such thing as spreading yourself too thin when you possess the kind of passion Reis does.

Contrary to what Reis's former flight patterns might indicate, Hot Snakes are not going to vanish anytime soon. The chemistry is just too right and too tight, and too much ground has been trodden--and broken. Re-teaming with the New York-based Froberg (also of Drive Like Jehu) and metronome-precise drummer Jason Kourkounis (formerly of the Delta 72), Hot Snakes prove to be a multitalented bicoastal effort. Who said long-distance relationships can't work out? Their debut album Automatic Midnight, was met with enthusiasm by critics as well as core San Diego fans who readily fed on the fresh ambrosia provided by their prolific punk demigod. And once the Snakes became a formidable tetrad (Gar Wood, formerly of Tanner, joined as bassist), they took a condo in Imperial Beach and recorded Suicide Invoice, a collection of 12 blood-soaked, chimerical fugues that fall in between intestinal punk and white-flash adrenaline rock.

Hot Snakes are the kind of dollar-rack bargain supergroup whose names may not at once ring a bell for those living outside punk-music circles--for the time being, at least. Are they too harsh to be popular? Probably not. The mainstream is all about inverting the underground these days, which is probably why bands like Hot Snakes continue to burrow deeper into the no-one-dares-go-there volcanic mantle. Their Suicide Invoice has the same kind of immediacy that belongs to the holy trinity of rock revivalists (whose names we won't reveal, but they are from Sweden, New York, and Australia), and those acts have effectively zeroed in on mainstream headspace. But Hot Snakes have no such agenda. They've simply sublimated their material with refined craftsmanship, using crisp, sharp-edged instrumentation and infectious choruses--all as if by dietary restriction. Suicide Invoice, much like Hot Snakes' first release, pisses on commercialism with such a full bladder that it wouldn't be out of the question for them to be plucked out of relative obscurity and become the next big thing.

"I Hate the Kids" on pop radio? It would be perfect masochism for those kids who just can't get enough of being hated.