San Diego’s grizzled punk-rock veterans Hot Snakes have a song called “Who Died,” with a chorus of “It was you / You, you’re the one who died.” The band opened their show Sunday night in Cleveland, at a beer-soaked club called the Grog Shop, with a new song called “Death Camp Fantasy.” Jericho Sirens, their first album in 14 years, is out Friday; I describe the Grog Shop as “beer-soaked” because the singer for Duchess Says, one of Sunday night’s opening bands, poured a beer over her head and then shook herself vigorously. The headliners’ merch booth featured several excellent T-shirt designs, but they were sold out of size XL in all of them.
The other opening band was called Meat Wave, by the way. It was a “just old enough to remember record stores, and way too old for the mosh pit” sort of crowd. The guy next to me spent some of his downtime on his phone, looking up Afghan Whigs merchandise on eBay; at one point, somebody behind us blurted out, “Master of Puppets came out in 1986!” I had driven two and a half hours to get to this show. Here, in three minutes and 15 seconds, is the reason.
John Reis has in fact co-founded three prominent post-hardcore bands with singer-guitarist Rick Froberg: Pitchfork in the late ’80s, the mighty Drive Like Jehu in the early ’90s, and Hot Snakes later that decade. The pummelling guitar-god hypnosis of “10th Planet,” the highlight of Hot Snakes’ first album, 2000’s Automatic Midnight, is a fine example of this partnership’s signature innovation; another essential element is Froberg’s blunt howl, which on this song makes his repeated line “It’s a dead, dead, dead town” sound awfully convincing. The effect is not so much post-apocalyptic as mid-apocalyptic; you can feel the searing heat, and feel your body becoming just another part of the rubble. It’s surf rock for snarling burnouts too misanthropic to do anything on the beach but beat up other surfers.
Hot Snakes put out two more albums, 2002’s Suicide Invoice (Track 1: “I Hate the Kids”) and 2004’s Audit in Progress, then drifted apart, save the occasional reunion show. Reis, a label head and San Diego scene godfather who also fronts the long-running garage-punk band Rocket From the Crypt, has stayed particularly busy. (That band has a goofy jam called “Born in ’69,” which makes Reis one of the more prolific and intimidating near-50-year-olds I know.)
What is both thrilling and alarming about Jericho Sirens is that you don’t sense the 14-year time jump at all: The band’s skills at blunt-force exhilaration have not deteriorated, and external circumstances have certainly not improved. They played most of the record Sunday night for a crowd that had no immediate way of hearing it beforehand, and the riffs were so bludgeoning and familiar that nobody much cared, or at least nobody thought to complain. Here is the album’s lead single, “Six Wave Hold-Down,” which is a relatively jubilant song that employs surfer slang for what I assume to be a profoundly unpleasant situation.
What’s impressive about this song is the way it inspires both air guitar and air flailing-while-drowning. The best songs on Jericho Sirens—“Death Camp Fantasy” and “I Need a Doctor” especially—are immediately overwhelming, the riffs delivered with titanium-wristed force that induces a sort of euphoria via claustrophobia. This takes a lot of physical effort, coupled with a certain suave nonchalance. Onstage, Froberg tends to lurk in a back corner of the stage, yelling things like “Have I been preyed upon?” in a somewhat detached manner. Meanwhile, Reis mugs in the spotlight center stage, jutting out his superhero jaw and shimmying his shoulders and wielding his guitar like a battering ram. Sunday, he looked pleased that everyone in the crowd was having a good time, and was also plainly having a much better time than anybody else.
“I’m glad to see all the latest dance moves have made it to Cleveland,” Reis told us at one point. “You guys have got The Stare down perfectly.” Not that the crowd lacked enthusiasm: One song later, a raucous gentleman was escorted out by a bouncer for spraying beer on the band in repeated staccato bursts, in perfect time with another brutalist beat.
One very simple litmus test for this band is how you, personally, feel about the Jericho Sirens song title “Death Doula.” Is that frightening? Is that ridiculous? Is that badass? There is a “midnight monster movie” quality to Hot Snakes, a silliness that only amplifies the fearsomeness. As ’90s reunions go, this is not an extinction-level event. This band will not change your life, probably. But it will make your life both more terrifying and way more bearable. It’s an honor, genuinely, to be pummelled and trampled by some of the best.