Spider Bags formed in 2005 as a long-distance project between close friends who had known each other since their high school days in New Jersey. Dan McGee had just witnessed the demise of his NYC-based punk band, DC Snipers. Feeling he had gone as far as he could with the three-chord punk genre, and not wanting to repeat himself, he began writing volumes of songs with his friend, Gregg Levy.
During the 2011 recording of the band’s third album, Shake My Head (Odessa, 2012), the current line-up consisting of Steve Oliva (bass) and Rock Forbes (drums) was finally solidified. Building upon the foundation laid down by its predecessor, Frozen Letter rocks with the clairvoyance of three musicians who have spent a lot of time recording and touring together over the last few years. “When we started this record, we weren’t even thinking about it being released. We just did it to have fun and keep moving forward,” says Forbes, who has been playing with Spider Bags since 2008. This approach, and McGee’s intent to make a “weird, trippy record,” allowed the band to push itself further out into the psychedelic frontier than ever before, aided by engineer/producer Wesley Wolfe.
Simultaneously, the trio was recording a full-length as the backing band for North Carolina blues singer extraordinaire Reese McHenry. The sessions, engineered by Wolfe, tended to blend together but also kept the band focused on music. Some finished songs were left on the cutting room floor but during those three exhilarating days, the eight songs on Frozen Letter were recorded.
Opening side one, “Back With You Again in the World” is the kind of up-tempo, riff-driven rocker that Spider Bags have made their trademark, augmented by an Andy Mackay-style sax solo. “Japanese Vacation,” with its Chuck Berry-by-way-of-Johnny Thunders riff, and the frenetic “Chem Trails” keep the needle placed firmly in the red.
Side Two continues the introspective mood established by “Coffin Car.” “Walking Bubble” features a gorgeous finger-picked acoustic guitar and the enigmatic lyric “Why trust the morning to the sky / Is there good reason why?” The line is punctuated by a doubled, haunting guitar riff—a detail, like many on the record, that pushes things into headphone territory. The centre-piece of the record is the brown-acid-laced “We Got Problems,” which features a heavy and repetitive pattern, a slew of effected guitars, searing guest leads from Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, and some of McGee’s best vocals to date. The song encapsulates an entire Spider Bags epoch in just under six minutes.
Taken as a whole, Frozen Letter manages to glide along the razor’s edge, and true to an actual acid trip, there are moments of utter terror alongside unfettered joy.