New wave

Breakthrough EPs by two emergent Portland bands
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 16, 2008
HUMMING ALONG: The RattleSnakes.

For two of Portland’s noisiest and most exciting bands of the moment, Cougars kill Cobras and the RattleSnakes, chaos is a virtue and tonality is a worthless pursuit. Both can be loosely labeled indie-punk bands, but they take those unifying traits to different extremes. Where the RattleSnakes’ Tidal Living EP (available only on vinyl, with a digital-download link) is marked by a raucous but fun, almost sunshiny temperament, Cougars kill Cobras’ self-titled debut EP (a simple old-fashioned CD) sounds cleaner but more foreboding, like dance-punk filtered through a buzz saw.

The RattleSnakes formed in Farmington in early 2006, and stormed into Portland in the winter of ’06-’07, quickly developing a reputation as a thrilling but erratic live act at DIY venues in the area (the reputation persists, but I’ve seen the band twice this year and have been impressed both times). Of their early days, guitarist Brian Cohen says, “We were pretty obnoxious, noisy, and crappy, and were proud of it.” That carefree attitude is still on display with Tidal Living, but the band are learning to harness their scattered ideas into a philosophy of sorts.

The album’s drawbacks are so predictable and time-honored that they’re basically amusing genre tropes: Singer/bassist Tara Bincarousky’s sweet voice has trouble carrying the band’s more good-natured indie-pop choruses (her yell, though, is an untethered force, especially on “High Flyin’”) and while all three members (including Mike Cunnane on drums) have serviceable voices, their harmonies (particularly on “The Eight,” a staccato, Pavement-esque ballad) are disjointed.

Their freewheeling song structure, though, isn’t as tossed off as it appears. Most of these two-to-three-minute songs sound like a couple of short tracks in a head-on collision: “Untitled” and “Cheryl” both have elongated intros that feel like outros, with languorous guitars and drums clattering, but end with meaty, feedback-laden hooks; “End of Epidemic” begins with a pensive minute of melodica before it suddenly becomes an anthemic swirl of caterwauling guitar riffs. Tidal Living is a short EP with more ideas than a lot of albums, and an appropriately scrappy breakthrough for one of Portland’s most unpredictable bands.

Not unlike their live shows, where the band are straight-faced and relentless — only lit by 8-bit graphics projected onto the stage — Cougars kill Cobras’ debut EP is both polished and nihilistic. The band’s visceral aesthetic fully emerges on their debut. Each track features abrasive but taut guitar and grinding bass lines motoring through feedback. Derek Geirhan’s drums make sense of the assault, and give the songs a confident swagger.

Frontmen Gerald Von Stoddard and Noah Defilippis sing in snot-nosed snarls — sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re having a laugh or trying to start a revolution — about secrets and lies, sex, drugs, and violence, often in tandem. Their most vivid imagery is fixated on gazes that incite passion and mayhem — “She gives me fever and it’s in my eyes” (“Bed on Fire”); “She can look in my eyes/And we’ll do it all over again” (“California”) — and they’re strewn through both the band’s blitzkrieg anthems and their simmering mood pieces.

Though Cougars kill Cobras traffic in slick, oppressive minimalism where the RattleSnakes rock in lo-fi, spastic glee, both young bands share something important and rare in common, locally: they’re both completely self-possessed. In our incestuous little scene, marked largely by steady evolutions and successful tweaks of successful formats, it’s no small feat that both of these trios have sprung from (seemingly) nowhere and forged sounds indebted to none of their local peers.

Christopher Gray can be reached

RattleSnakes at Geno's | July 27 |

Cougars kill Cobras at the Big Easy | August 17 |

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