A Frames
w/the Pyramids, Phantom Lights
Fri April 8, Fun House, 9:30 pm, $6, 21+.

People are starting to take A Frames seriously--maybe too seriously.

Now that the Seattle trio--singer-guitarist Erin Sullivan, drummer Lars Finberg, and bassist Min Yee--have issued Black Forest, their debut album for Sub Pop and third full-length overall, many national media outlets are critiquing A Frames' obliquely angled, highly torqued songs, which previously were mainly documented by small zines and the local press. These journalists zero in on Sullivan's bleak lyrics delivered in a voice that emanates from under the floorboards and pitched somewhere between Ian Curtis' grave moan and comedian Steven Wright's Sahara-dry deadpan. On the surface, A Frames' songs about biological catastrophe, geological decay, and psychological meltdown appear to be the zenith of nihilism. But, Finberg argues, these critics miss the band's humor.

"I think there's no way [Erin's words] can be taken completely seriously when I see his lyrics on paper," Finberg says in an interview at Sullivan's tastefully appointed West Seattle home, where DVDs of art-film classics like Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness and Kaspar Hauser sit near the TV and wild-ass noise-rockers the Cows get heavy rotation. "They're so over the top, but I think people think they're really serious. But there's a punch line underneath it."

"[Critics] think we're all hanging around in black suits with eyeliner on and, shit, taking it all seriously," Sullivan says, laughing. "Once they see that we're pretty much normal people and not scenester types, it changes the way they look at us. Also, our records sound a lot different than we do live. It's a lot more punk and aggressive live."

You can't really blame listeners who don't personally know the band--actually jovial, if sardonic, characters who share numerous inside jokes and like a drink or five--for catching negative vibes off Black Forest. Take the disc's last two tracks, for example: "Negative" rides Flipper-like landslide chords that are nihilism incarnate. Try smiling as Sullivan intones, "Nothing good ever stays/I'm living in the future tense/Absolute zero." Then there's "Black Forest III," which seethes with more apocalyptic fury than Pere Ubu's "Final Solution," as the group try like hell to contain overflowing bile. It sounds like rock's ultimate swan song.

"I wrote 'Black Forest III' in a hotel in New York, and the neighbors kept me up all night," Sullivan admits. "I was feeling pretty frustrated at the time. That was a way to get it out, I guess."

"The neighbors were the black forest," Yee cracks.

"That [song] clearly is supposed to be funny--it's so over the top," Sullivan says. "'No burgers, no sports, no jokes'; if you think I'm singing that seriously, you gotta be pretty fuckin' weird… I wouldn't mind any of that shit gone, but--" Sullivan pauses. "Actually, I am serious; never mind…"

On "Black Forest II," A Frames work up a bilious storm of angst rock, as Sullivan continues riding the "no" wave, barking, "No churches, no garbage cans/No punks, no garage bands/No organism left to grow/Black forest and fallout snow." When asked if he considers himself nihilistic, pessimistic, and misanthropic, Sullivan nods yes. "I'm not necessarily pessimistic about everything, but I'm definitely cynical."

Sullivan confesses he was "miserable" when writing the "Black Forest" trilogy in New York. "I was watching this show about Hiroshima. I had gotten no sleep. Those songwriting experiences are rare, when everything around you adds up to this revelation that makes a song. But whether it represents my feelings about the apocalypse, I'm not sure. As much as my lyrics are jokes, I do think that humanity is fucked. But I'm not trying to be all heavy about it. Anyone who reads enough news and pays attention to what's happening in the world can see we're a fuckin' dead end on the tree of evolution. It's not gonna work out, man." Then, respite from the gloom: "Oh, I love this," Sullivan beams about a song playing on the stereo. "Sun City Girls doing 'Batman.' It's the best version ever."

Parabolic and acute, A Frames' songs are concise bundles of paradoxes, sparking exhilarating friction. Sullivan sings morbid songs about death trains and Eva Braun. Yet the effect is sharply moving. Finberg's robotic drumming and Sullivan and Yee's stark, stiff riffing irrepressibly inspire dancing. Their darkness is brilliant, their pessimism uplifting.

A Frames make most bands sound prissily fussy. They ruthlessly cut what some may consider extraneous elements from rock's repertoire, focusing on threshing, metronomic backbeats; girthful Peter Hook/Bogshed bass lines; and sulphuric, surgically precise guitar riffs. They banish frippery, as their cyclical song structures wind as tight as a belt during the Great Depression. Amid the angsty tumult, memorable tunes surface like jewels in an oil slick. Rarely has a band's less-is-more ethos impacted so righteously.

While their fortunes rise--they recently slayed two crowds at SXSW--A Frames continue to be a hub for much of Seattle's most interesting rock. From their austerely catchy automaton garage rock emerges a fruitful tree of side projects and fellow travelers. Finberg heads the phenomenal Intelligence, a loose ensemble who apply a poppier, more electronic spin on A Frames' mordant minimalism (Yee and Sullivan occasionally chip in). Their Boredom and Terror CD evokes the lo-fi splendor of the Monks, Country Teasers, and Swell Maps. Intelligence drummer Matthew Ford also plays in Factums (Fall-like subterranean bonesick blues), while Sullivan and Finberg toil with Dean Whitmore in Dipers (Amphetamine Reptile-style power rock for drunken parties). Ford also teams with the Lights' Craig Chambers in Pyramids.

So much great music emanating from such staunch minimalists… Aptly, A Frames' songs eschew all bullshit. "That's what we're trying for," says Finberg. "A lot of it comes from me not being a flashy drummer. Erin comes up with beats that are a 'Make a weakness your strength' kind of thing. In a way, it gets more interesting the more stuff you take out of it."

"It made us think of the parts that we did have in there," says Sullivan. "They had to be original or unique somehow to pull it off, or else it would be really terrible."

And that's no joke.

segal@thestranger.com

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