FOREWORD: Where the fuck’s the follow-up, dudes? That’s the question I’d ask the A-Frames, whose ambitious ’05 album, Black Forest, kicked open shuttered doors with a loud bang. Can hardly find shit about them on the internet, ‘cept some guy saying Sub Pop Records is sitting on some unreleased recordings. I’d call the label, but I’m afraid they’d say the band broke up. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
A-Frames guitarist Erin Sullivan first became infatuated with schizoid Texas punk while attending Colorado State University with Scratch Acid guitarist Brett Bradford, who turned the local Greeley native on to the Lone Star State’s rabid hardcore scene. Soon after, Sullivan migrated to the northwest, where he fortuitously met compatible music collector geek Min Yee and instrumentalist Lars Finberg in Seattle. The trio shared an affinity for experimental rock’s unconventionality and decided to form the A-Frames as an investigative project impulsively exploring beyond the restrictive three-chord fringes of readymade indie pop. As keen-witted neo-punk descendants, the A-Frames made sundry limited edition singles and an ‘02 long-play debut, followed by the more involving, plainly titled 2.
“Our debut was mostly garage-punk, stripped down and naïve. My singing is hidden through distortion and amps ‘cause I didn’t think I vocalized well,” Sullivan smirks. “It was fairly straightforward compared to 2, which is slicker, more rock and roll-y, but weirder.”
But neither foray would match the unconstrained adventurousness, awesome depth, and clear progression of ‘05s fascinatingly inventive Black Forest. A headier non-conformity creeps through its minimalist no wave idiosyncrasies, fragmentary progressive rock abandon, and bristling automaton dance rhythms. Sometimes Sullivan’s ominously unwieldy baritone intuitively rails against fascism in a roundabout way or slithers into technological blather just for jest.
“The second record hit an apex with futuristic topics telling a story and then running with it. It was the first time I wrote lyrics that meant anything. Before that, it was all rock and roll filler,” he candidly reflects.
But it was the first single for the A-Frames own boutique label, Dragnet, which initially used science and technology as topical minutiae.
“That’s when I stumbled into the idea, on the “Neutron Bomb”/ “Test Tube Baby”/ “Radiation Generation” recording. But I still get criticized for my lyrics,” he claims. “I do research to make them more fun while trying to convey a small message.”
Sullivan’s biggest lyrical influence, Stickmen With Rayguns’ perilously spontaneous vocalist Bobby Soxx, had a knack for pissed off metaphoric intrigue. His loony apocalyptic humor and descriptive visualizations countered the heaviness of his Texas bands’ rollicking freakouts. But unfortunately Bobby Soxx died a total junkie on the streets, apparently “walking the talk,” as Sullivan so bluntly puts it.
“I loved the Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, and Teenage Queers, but Stickmen’s “Scavenger Of Death” is such a killer song about vultures picking at a corpse. There’s a picture of Bobby at a club with a mike stuck up his ass and there’s the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes, age 16, laughing hysterically in the background.” Sullivan excitedly adds, “Min scrounged up some hard-to-find Stickmen stuff and I’d bought the Texas hardcore compilation, Cottage Cheese On the Lips of Death. On it, Stickmen do “Christian Rat Attack.” There’s also a great early Cows tune, “Daddy Has A Tail,” which has an insane bass we’re trying to emulate.”
Captured on 8-track by perpetual A-Frames producer, Chris Woodhouse (ex-Karate Party), in a practice space where gear was brought in, Black Forest’s assemblage strangely came together piecemeal.
Sullivan explains, “We did a couple different sessions. The first ones we weren’t crazy about; didn’t like the mix. When we re-did it, Chris did a fucked up distorted mix that became (demented boogie) “Black Forest II,” with the toms. He plays the flamenco guitar on “Flies” since I couldn’t do it nearly as good.”
While the shuddering rumbled perdition “Death Train” recalls the comparatively straight-ahead tone of the A-Frames first two long-players, not to mention Gun Club’s skulking ‘psychobilly,’ Black Forest’s profound vigor relies instead on perceptively perplexing innovative designs. After an incessant Industrial clang envelops 68-second opener “Black Forest I,” a synth-derived bagpipe intro leads to elastic guitar razzmatazz and clanking mechanical percussion on curiously oblong probe “Experiment.” The ruggedly bass-bottomed volatility of “Galena” hearkens back to Mission Of Burma’s dense outré ‘80s output, but its metallic scheme reverberates more expeditiously. A medieval theme haunts “Flies,” a stationary counter-melodic duet with rad Aussie lass, Jo Clackston. Sullivan’s brawny feedback sustenance, Yee’s fuzzily psychedelic fretting, and Finberg’s punished skins frame the aggressively foreboding “Negative,” a ‘70s-styled political punk rant.
“We’re finally getting exposure. Nobody gave a shit about us. Now, our 7-inch singles sell for a fuck load on Ebay, between $40 and $90. At the time, we couldn’t get rid of them at record stores. It was embarrassing. We took time to catch on. We’re out of step,” Sullivan mulls. “Our live shows are hilarious. There’s the Chicago Blackout festival punk-porno magazine Horizontal Action does. We played with the Clone Defects and the Tirades. Somehow, we always get girls dancing up-front because our beats have a different groove than that of the punks. You know I don’t mind having girls shake their asses near the stage.”
Though signed to Sub Pop, the A-Frames maintain “a super half-ass record company venture,” Dragnet Records, which lacks proper distribution. Yet several worthy 45’s by underexposed acts like Los Huevos, Double Fudge, Piranhas, Twinkeys, and Michael Yonkers plus a full-length by San Francisco’s Vulvettes adjoin Finberg’s offshoot project the Intelligence. Calamitous Sullivan-Finberg spin-off, the Dipers, recorded ‘01s cacophonously walloped How to Plan Successful Parties on Omnibus Records with drummer Dean Whitmore.
“I’ve written a few new A-Frames songs,” Sullivan shares. “I wanna keep it simple next time. I have an urge to record on 4-track. It may be more extreme. For Black Forest, we used different source material to mix from, so the sound quality was unique, using different rooms at different times, creating dumb luck accidents.”