Fourteen years after releasing Audit in Progress, which appeared to be their final album, Hot Snakes have returned with Jericho Sirens, a blast of artful ferocity that exceeds expectations. The San Diego band, featuring Drive Like Jehu's Rick Froberg and John Reis and their buds bassist Gar Wood and drummers Jason Kourkounis and Mario Rubalcaba, is a rare confluence of dudes who bridge the raw abandon of early rock and its garage-y mutations with post-punk's complexity and focus.
When they initially reconvened to tour in 2011, it was clear nobody had filled the void they'd left behind. How can a band this intense elicit so much joy? Well, there's stylish swagger and fun at play, it's all propelled by a totally unique guitar and rhythmic assault and, in Froberg, features one of rock's most compelling singers and lyricists.
As bands who emerged in the 1990s have reanimated themselves for reunion tours and albums in recent years, a trend is emerging: the truly great ones are arguably better now than they ever were. Older, wiser and more at ease with themselves and the social dynamics of their bands, the music is heightened, fuelled by experience, hindsight, and perhaps a greater sense that in life, time is precious, and shit needs to get done while you can.
Hot Snakes fit this bill, infusing Jericho Sirens with more power and urgency than any of their three previous albums. Given that those three records — 2000's Automatic Midnight, 2002's Suicide Invoice and 2004's Audit in Progress — are each highwater marks for American punk, the assured vitality of Jericho Sirens is particularly remarkable.
Reis and Froberg have outdone themselves with some of these guitar parts. "Candid Cameras" is stirring and punishing and "Having Another" is dizzying. On fare that builds more gradually, like "Six Wave Hold-Down" or the title track, we get other kinds of revelatory tricks. Listening through, we encounter the best riffs any player could conjure with an instrument some have been writing off as obsolete. Worldwide Hot Snakes guitar clinics would get the most seasoned players rethinking their whole musical approach — that's how unique these guys are in their creative instincts and interplay. That Hot Snakes somehow also house an incomparable, bone-shaking rhythm section is the icing on the perfectly baked-from-scratch cake.
Lyrically, Froberg is frank and funny as usual, immersing personal observations and imaginary ideas in murky metaphor. The opening crusher "I Need a Doctor" conjures exasperation and medical paranoia to tackle unavoidable mortal truths, while "Having Another?' wonders and worries about drinking too much, reminding us that whatever the circumstances, ultimately, we all die alone.
The word "death" appears on three of ten songs here and Froberg deals with the topic wryly. "Death Camp Fantasy" explores our panic-induced obsession with the end of the world in pop culture realms, while "Death Doula" skewers medical aides who puff out their chests about helping people at the end of life, by proposing such helpers may not be as beloved as they think they are (i.e. "I want you replaced/I don't like your face/I want a new death doula!"). Not shy to take on the odd narrative, Froberg based "Death of a Sportsman" on a book he'd come upon, written in the early 20th century, and chronicling a tiger hunter. Froberg is too nonchalant to emphasize messaging in his work but it's there if you look for it and here, he alludes to animal conservation in his own riddling manner.
Jericho Sirens is truly spirited rock'n'roll that hits you directly, but it's also enigmatic and increasingly rewarding the deeper you dive. The arrangements are mighty and confident, while the cast of characters and scenarios are compelling and provocative, anchored by Froberg's impassioned screaming and cool articulation.
Comebacks are complicated, for bands and fans too, but this is one for the ages. Hot Snakes have returned, reminding those of us who've paid attention that they are definitively one of the greatest rock bands we've ever known. (Sub Pop)