At the start of Black Snow, the new album by Hanalei, a traveler on his way to Elko in a post-apocalyptic America finds a cell phone in the desert. Somehow, it still works. That night, alone in a tent, he spends hours scrolling in a blue glow, amazed at how humanity’s “last years were spent staring down, as beauty and abundance swirled in marvel all around.” Little does he notice that he’s doing the exact same thing: burying his nose in a screen as the cosmos hangs above.
Described by its creator, punk musician-turned-English teacher Brian Moss, as a “loose collection of stories set in a post-climate collapse near-future,” Black Snow is an airy and enjoyable indie rock album with a clear eco-punk message.
“I started writing this album shortly after I found out my wife was pregnant,” Moss says. “I found myself dealing with a lot of anxiety, coupled with the joy. I had reservations about having a kid, mainly due to the state of the world. Politics, but more so the climate.”
These climate anxieties manifest themselves rather directly on Black Snow (currently available for order from political punk band Anti-Flag’s A-F Records). Each song is narrated from a different perspective, only about half of which are human. There’s a chimp trapped in a burning tree (“Sumatra’s Burning”) and a tree itself (“Bristlecone Queen”), the collective voice of slain animals (“A Billion Ghosts”), and one particularly eerie voice risen from beneath the permafrost.
“The second song is touchy because it’s narrated from the perspective of a virus that overtakes the planet,” Moss says. “I’d written that song probably a year prior to the first COVID cases. The Earth has self-defense mechanisms, and the more we dig and the more ruin we leave in our wake, the more shit’s going to pop up to combat us.”
Despite the bleak themes, Black Snow is an enjoyable indie rock record with plenty of little hooks and flares that bear themselves on repeat listens. The guitar line on power-pop opener “Screen Echoes” hugs the chords like a one-lane mountain highway. On the tightly-wound title track (possibly Hanalei’s best so far), Moss waits three minutes to finally let loose a guitar part that sounds like it’s been champing at the bit to break free since the count-in.
Many in San Francisco will recognize Moss’ voice from the melodic punk band Great Apes, regulars of the city’s punk scene throughout the 2010s, but his role in the Bay Area underground stretches much further back than that. Moss first started gaining attention in 1998 for his then emo-punk band The Wunder Years. Originally named with an ‘O’ rather than a ‘U,’ the band’s label (the short-lived Tomato Head Records) forced them to change their name out of a somewhat irrational fear of a lawsuit from the ABC network. A few years later, another emo band, this time from Pennsylvania, would pluck up the unclaimed moniker.
When the Wunder Years broke up around the turn of the millennium, Moss started the post-hardcore band The Ghost and quickly relocated to Chicago, a city the band found better situated for a group of itinerant musicians.
“We were just working so hard, touring so much, and we couldn’t pay rent in the Bay Area,” Moss says. “And if you’re touring regularly, it’s central. You don’t have to drive 10 hours off the Western Seaboard to get to the next big city. You can drive a couple of hours to do Midwest shows, or do two weeks on the East Coast.”
Sure, you can. Instead, The Ghost toured for three months straight. At the time, they didn’t even have a record out. Partway through, they recorded their debut This is a Hospital in between dates with Thursday and Rival Schools. Two years later, The Ghost released This Pen is a Weapon, an inspired follow-up of “arty but bitter postpunk” according to Revolver, and then promptly disbanded.
It was in 2003, after The Ghost ground to a halt, that Moss first began writing songs for Hanalei. A marked departure from his previous band’s ragged emotional outpouring, the first Hanalei album, We Are All Natural Disasters, paired folky singer-songwriter acoustics with skittering GarageBand glitch-hop. Instead of the growl and howl of the Wunder Years and The Ghost, Moss sang clearly. By 2006’s Parts and Accessories, Hanalei had begun to sound mountainous and serene, trading out the glitchy beats for the twanging sigh of pedal steels.
At the end of the aughts, Moss moved back to the Bay and immediately launched a series of new bands: Olehole, Sub Dio, Landless, Great Apes. While he could have started any number of bands in Chicago, he says by that time he had become homesick for the West Coast.
“I loved living in Chicago, but the main reason I moved back is that I missed the outdoors, and missed the natural splendor of California.”
It is this natural splendor (and its current precariousness) that most clearly influences Black Snow, often in the form of something lost, or actively disappearing. Somehow though, after nine tracks of burning forests and animals driven to extinction, the album manages to end on a hopeful note. “This is Not the End,” Black Snow’s anthemic final track, functions as a conversation between a father and son, with the father admitting he has been “buckled by the weight of a generation’s fear,” and the son declaring himself “carried by my generation’s will to change.”
“The son is trying to push some optimism into his father,” Moss says, aware that it is a conversation he will likely have with his own son before long. “Maybe he’s absolving the father of being of the generation that ignored climate change and didn’t do enough.”
At least, that’s the hope lingering in the back of Black Snow.
As for Brian Moss, he’s just hoping to play a show again someday.
“I realized today this is by far the longest I’ve gone without playing a show since I started playing shows,” he recently posted to Facebook. “ …27 years ago.”
Hanalei, A-F Records
Mike Huguenor is a contributing writer. Twitter @mikehuguenor