Akimbo: Historical Sharks

“We got to carry the cake on stage,” boasts Akimbo drummer Nat Damm. The Seattle three-piece is making its way home through a mountainous stretch of highway after playing Jello Biafra’s fiftieth birthday party in San Francisco. Although a few generations younger than the punk legend, Akimbo has reached a milestone of its own: its tenth anniversary as a band.

In that time, the group has become known for its hybrid of hardcore, metal, and rock’n’roll, a heavy combination carrying the torch of luminaries such as the Jesus Lizard, Unsane, and the Melvins. After three albums, beginning with Harshing Your Mellow (Dopamine/Seventh Rule) in 2001, Akimbo signed to Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles and released Forging Steel and Laying Stone in January 2006 before immediately heading back into the studio. Armed with then-new guitarist Aaron Walters and recording engineer/Lords’ front man Chris Owens, Akimbo came out victorious with not one, but two, stellar full-lengths.

Damm calls the double recording session “an awesome moment for us,” but that’s putting it mildly. When Navigating the Bronze (Alternative Tentacles) was released in August 2007, it was arguably the group’s best and heaviest album to date. The second record (Akimbo’s sixth altogether), Jersey Shores, wouldn’t arrive until over a year later, via Neurot Records.

Jersey Shores is a concept record based of a real-life horror story. “The concept,” explains the band via its website, “is that ‘nature will fuck you up.’ The theme is ‘sharks, in particular, will totally fuck you up.’” The album is rooted in the events surrounding a series of unprovoked shark attacks that occurred along the New Jersey coastline in the summer of 1916. The shark (or sharks — no one knows for sure) claimed the lives of four people and severely maimed a fifth. In their time, the attacks caused unparalleled mass hysteria. Later on, they provided the inspiration for Jaws.

Akimbo bassist/singer Jon Weisnewski’s taste for mythological references and storytelling had long been apparent in the band’s catalog, evidenced by songs like Elephantine’s “Bitten from the Thigh of Zeus” and Navigating’s “Wizard van Wizard.” It is unsurprising that he had been toying with the idea of a concept album for a long time.

“When we were writing the music, I was naturally playing with thematic elements. It seemed like some good material to base a concept record around. I’ve always been like a little kid. You know how kids get into dinosaurs and shit? I was reading a book called Twelve Days of Terror by Richard Fernicola (the full title is Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks), and it kind of blew me away.”

Starting out with a few scenes and ideas, he recalls, “Once I really started writing Jersey Shores, I had it all in my head, and it was just a matter of figuring out the kinks.” Weisnewski centered the lyrics on what he considered to be the most profound moment in the story. During the third and final shark attack, a child named Lester Stillwell was attacked and killed, along with his would-be rescuer. Another boy was bitten upstream just minutes later. When word got out, all hell broke loose.

Music based on shark attacks must be inherently dramatic, but much of the tension found on Jersey Shores derives from the intense reaction of the public, heightened by a media circus in the wake of the attacks. Weisnewski points out, “You have to keep in mind that there was nothing about marine biology. Nobody knew about ocean creatures. You know that scene in Jaws when they go out searching for the shark? The same thing happened there. They were dynamiting the water. I found these crazy photos of carcasses upon carcasses of sharks. It was also during World War I, and people wondered if the sharks were some sort of secret weapon from the Germans.”

In six tracks, clocking in at forty-eight minutes, Akimbo paints descriptive images despite Weisnewski’s occasionally indecipherable (but awesome) screams. It is easy to follow the story as guitar and bass riffs ebb and flow like ocean tides, and scenes seamlessly run from one to the next. “Matawan,” named for the small, working town where Stillwell was killed, sets the story in motion. All is calm, but a sense of uneasiness becomes more and more pervasive. Stories of the first two victims circulate (“Bruder Vansant”). Tension has already mounted by the time the town suffers its own casualties and people begin to take matters into their own hands.

The plodding bass line on “Rogue” is reminiscent of a heartbeat ringing in the ears of someone who is scared out of his or her mind. Twelve-minute instrumental closer “Jersey Shores” revisits earlier themes and sees a return to daily life, but following the attacks’ bloody aftermath, the sound of rolling waves hardly feels tranquil.

The story of the New Jersey shark attacks may be nearly one hundred years old, but the sensationalistic media coverage and resultant public outcry surrounding such a tragic event sounds eerily familiar. Damm says that the album isn’t a comment on anything happening in the current world, but he admits, “There are definitely parallels, like with color coding for terrorism levels. But we don’t really mix politics with the band. It’s not something that has interested us.”

Even more impressive than successfully conquering a hardcore concept album is the fact that Akimbo somehow managed to not play it for anyone outside its circle in the last year. If you’ve ever killed a man in cold blood and need to get the guilt off your chest, tell these guys; they obviously know how to keep a secret. The band will finally debut Jersey Shores live in its entirety this September, and its members can’t wait. Weisnewski says that he is particularly proud of the album. “For me personally, it’s a really exciting record,” he says. “I have a lot of attachment to it. Every time I play it at practice, it’s an experience. I’m excited.”

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