It's a December midnight at Chop Suey and Cobra High just left the stage. With tonight's performance the band members know they've played their best show yet. The song "Awesomology" was solid as a mountain, its stacked layers of keyboards and guitar slammed into place as singer Justin Schwartz went down on his knees and allowed the emotion of the instrumental tune to make him electric. Backstage I tell bassist/keyboardist Colin Roper that the song was the orgasmic highlight of the set, and he agrees--but not without an eye-roll. "We have to top that," he says as drummer Marty Lund flops on the couch in exhaustion and chuckles at Roper's remark, knowing exactly where he's coming from. I don't, so Roper explains why they view their future creativity with trepidation: "Awesomology" is the first song Cobra High ever recorded, and they know it kicks absolute and total ass. Four years later, it's finally getting released, and now the best song of the set will also be the best song on the album. And nothing the band has written since has surpassed the intense heat of "Awesomology."

They really should lighten up. Although the song may be their best, one spin of the recently released Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane inspires fervent belief in Cobra High's future. "Their best" is sure to be a recurrent statement, turned out by stunned critics and fans every time the band turns out another album. Their studied blend of past musical genres, propelled forward with a smart yet startling inventiveness, means the future holds no limitation for the Seattle four-piece, even if each new offering initially leaves the listener somewhat perplexed.

First, there's the prog thing. One could say that prog rock has mostly been a genre best appreciated by those who grew up with it. Then again, one could also say that prog rock is a genre most reviled by those who grew up with it. I fall into the latter category, and until Cobra High hit the clubs, no one had been able to convince me that ANY of it was any good. To me, it was the soundtrack of weekly trips to Grandma's house. Intellectually, I conceded that prog pioneers such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, and the sick-making Yes were smarty-pants musicians who encompassed classical music's gargantuan scope within the rumbling confines of rock bands. They built massive walls of sound out of little more than synthesizers and guitar, bass and drums. But come on: Tales from Topographic Oceans? "The Three Fates: Clotho/Lachesis/Atropos"? My, how fanciful those titles are! They certainly appealed to the "headphone set," who delighted in the poncey titles because they were all stoned. Prog may qualify as stoner rock, but it's the kind of stoner rock that requires a certain amount of intellectual responsibility, shall we say, and to appreciate it was to become a scholar of all that it encompasses--every nook and creepy cranny leading farther toward obsession, to the point of being driven to ferret out obscure titles sung in German or Italian.

As with classical, you can't hear prog by listening to an album once. You have to listen and relisten and then listen again, until all of the parts are heard separately. Then and only then it is possible to really hear it altogether. Still, I held the aforementioned prog rock innovators responsible for the next experimental genre, the kind of bad "art rock" or "fusion" that makes eyelids turn inside out on their own accord. However, both XTC and Talking Heads fall into the gloriously not-bad pocket of that category, one that encouraged atonal off-centerness. I loved those bands steadily until the mid-'80s, when they began to have a distinct, er, sound. XTC's Drums and Wires and English Settlement remain two of my favorite albums, as do Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music. So it's no surprise I was floored by Cobra High, because I immediately recognized the experimentalism of the past in their sound. Name-check the comparisons to the band members and they demur, and look as if they feel obviously unworthy of the praise. I took a peek at guitarist/keyboardist Joram Young's record collection once, and he's definitely cognizant of artists who stepped outside the bounds of popular music over the last 35 years or so. Not only is he a friendly, open guy, he's a smarty-pants for the early 21st century.


Honestly, the first time I saw Cobra High play live I felt as if the sky had cracked open and a hammer, thrown down from the heavens, had conked me on the head. (How's that for fanciful?) Instantly, the band's four talented members--three of whom banged away at multiple keyboards, with two managing keyboards and guitars simultaneously, while the drummer took complicated rhythm to a frenzied extreme--transfixed me. Yes, that most definitely is prog and avant-garde rock, I thought as I processed the whos and hows of a new sound, one whose hypnotic core was shot through with slick threads of new wave and slubby catches of electroclash. It was something no other band in this town was doing. By the time Cobra High played their third show a couple of weeks later at Graceland, most of the new wave flashes had fallen away and been replaced by a heavier, almost menacing musical presence, but it wouldn't be until that winter night at Chop Suey that the band members would exhibit the assured stage presence that a sound as huge and daring as theirs demanded.

Impossibly angular and laconic in nature, singer Justin Schwartz is a striking frontman. His gaze hangs somewhere past the audience as his hands bang the keyboards before him. He appears to be alternately entranced or frantic as he sings, and despite the fact that he's often screaming, he's perfectly in tune. Also vital to Cobra High's complicated sound is the intricate interplay of Joram Young's guitars and keyboards, his strings ringing in cyclic tornadoes, his keys swelling to pump the maelstrom into a spectacular convulsion. Roper--the stoic one until you get to know him--plays bass with a ferocity that propels him far past simple rhythm-man, and Lund is a drummer who could put down the hardest hitting, most frenzied classic rocker. All this perfectionism is intertwined with a raw, crass enthusiasm, and if you ask me, this musical explosion of styles will make the band unstoppable.

The band members relocated from Portland to Seattle less than a year ago and feel that Seattle's supportive music scene is a perfect fit for their sound. Says Young, "When you're doing something different like we are, it helps if the scene is healthy and supportive, which Seattle has been. Any city we live in will take time to get used to us and our sound, but here, every time we play it gets better and we feel more comfortable." Roper's just glad people are finally listening: "Personally, I felt like for us the attention was overdue, and I'm glad that it happened here."

Cobra High signed on with Cold Crush Records, but because everything has happened so fast, they're all a bunch of adorable rubes when it comes to the business part of music. "We're kind of scared because we don't know anything about it," says Schwartz. "We just started learning that behind every band that's out there doing stuff are so many people working behind them. We've never had to think about getting a lawyer or any of that shit, and learning all that shit makes it scary and weird, but you have to make sure that you're not going to get fucked over." For a group that refuses to follow any rules, this structure might tend to bum them out. Says Young, "I wish we could get just one guy who would take care of everything." "Right now everyone we have around us is genuine, and we have some good people hanging out," Schwartz continues, "but we have had offers from other labels, and the thought of working with a major with people we don't know is scary."


As soon as I got my hands on Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane, I burned a few copies and sent them out to people who I imagined would love the band. A longtime friend who's a scholar of classical and 20th-century composers (and a composer himself) responded with a wildly excited letter of thanks, calling the band's music "a mix that's beyond welcome." "No one has done this as well as these guys," he continued, "and you know, I bet they don't even realize it. After all, it is their sound. They pick and pull the best of music history, program their synths and samplers with the utmost taste, turn up the fuzz a few notches too loud, smile wryly, and then shove it up your ass. Thank you! I really haven't heard anything as inspiring since the first time I heard the Clash and the Violent Femmes. I can't say enough about this band." He's dead-on about Cobra High's meticulous songwriting process. "As much as we're infatuated with making the perfect pop song," explains Young, "we're just as fascinated with writing songs that deconstruct things on that level." Lund furthers the thought, adding, "If we tried to write a song in a certain style it wouldn't work anyway, because we each play so differently."

I ask the band members how they typically write a song, and Young begins to explain: "It takes a really long time for us to write a song because we each play different styles in different ways, but we all work together. I think initially we have a general idea of what we'd like a song to be, but individually I think we each write the part that we think needs to be there, and in the end we get something that sounds unlike anything else, and that's probably why we're getting some recognition." Schwartz breaks it down even further: "Usually it takes months for us to write a song; we have a really slow writing process--there's an idea, and that turns into another idea, and then another--and sometimes it will evolve in one minute, and sometimes it takes two weeks." Young jumps in: "Colin and Marty will have a bass and drum part worked out, and when Justin writes his keyboard parts Colin will have to change his bass part because of the keyboard parts, and then I'll write a guitar part that makes Marty have to change his drum part. Even after it's recorded and we're playing live, we're changing stuff." I ask if this is the reason they sounded so different the second time I heard them play, and I get a round of no's. "That's because of our equipment, which is so fucking temperamental," says Schwartz. The rest of the members groan and roll their eyes in agreement.

I've already mentioned Young's impressive record collection, and Schwartz's musical abilities are equally impressive. "I've been playing music since I was five," he says. "Started on the piano, then went to saxophone, then went to drums, then guitar, and now I'm playing keyboards. I played in my first band when I was 11, and it was a punk rock band called the Nightshift." I chuckle at the Stephen King reference, but am secretly thrilled to learn that each member of Cobra High has had some sort of formal training, and that it all began with piano. It's not an elitist thing for me, just another validating point proving my impression that you can hear all kinds of history within Cobra High's completely new, deconstructive sound.

That got me thinking a little more deeply about Cobra High's role in the current state of music. Their grasp of atonality assures me they will influence the next wave of young local bands hearing it for the first time. Twentieth-century Austrian composer Arnold Sch枚nberg considered atonality to be a historical necessity, calling it a product of the evolution toward dissonant harmony. Many young composers had made a transition to atonality and contributed to this evolution, but of course there were the opinions of initial wafflers like Debussy, and others with traditional tastes, to deal with. In an article published in 1952, after his death, Sch枚nberg wrote of his detractors, "Most critics of this new style failed to investigate how far the ancient 'eternal' laws of musical aesthetics were observed, spurned, or merely adjusted to changed circumstances. Such superficiality brought about accusations of anarchy and revolution, whereas, on the contrary, this music was distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music." For most of the last decade it seemed that a large portion of Seattle's music community could've stood to take some direction from Sch枚nberg. Like the work of more recent composers such as Ligeti, Cobra High's compositional nonstyle is a direct descendent of and tribute to Sch枚nberg's vanguard dream of the evolution toward dissonant harmony.

They might or might not know of any of those composers, but Cobra High certainly understand dissonance as a natural part of music. A lot of indie rockers don't get this, or throw in a few minor chords and feel awfully proud, which is why so much shit sounds same-old, same-old--and why Cobra High sound so startling. It's as if the members of Cobra High aim to capture the minds of informed listeners and communicate with them in their own language, but what makes the band totally kickass to all listeners is that the musicians also understand that to have a left hook, you also need a right hook. To whap listeners with something pretty (tonal) and loud, you need to first catch their attention by whapping them with something quiet and ugly (atonal). Put any song on Sunset in the Eye of the Hurricane to this test and it will pass every time with flying, bright-sounding colors, and Young is believable when he emphatically says, "We're evolving right now." "If we're not," says Roper, "then it's over."

A couple of weeks ago, upon hearing "Awesomology" for the first time as it roared from the CD player of a Capitol Hill drinking establishment, an acquaintance said simply, "Finally, someone has done it. Someone has left the rest of Seattle behind and created something new and unexpected." After that, we can only look forward.

Cobra High play two CD release shows Sat June 7 at Graceland. Showtimes are 6 pm (all ages, w/the Magic Magicians and Asahi) and 10 pm (21+, w/the Magic Magicians and the Charming Snakes); $7.