Michael Holloway
MKE Music

Rainbow Cobra Releases New EP “Asleep at the Wheel”

Four-track release is an exploration of sobriety with catchy vocal melodies.

By - Nov 10th, 2023 02:10 pm
Rainbow Cobra. Photo by Erik Aldrich.

Rainbow Cobra. Photo by Erik Aldrich.

Oli Smith stood in front of a mirror, inspecting the freshly-irritated skin where a vibrant serpent now lived. His new tattoo hadn’t quite turned out the way he expected. The tattoo artist, when given free reign of the colors he could use to bring the snake to life, opted for seven colors instead of one or two.

“I was almost pissed because it was almost ugly to me, but I ended up really liking it,” Smith says of the rainbow-colored cobra tattoo.

Despite how Smith initially felt about the colorful tattoo, it would eventually become emblematic for his latest musical endeavor, an alternative-rock band called Rainbow Cobra – a band that, for Smith, has been a fun and energetic change of pace with his songwriting.

Rainbow Cobra formed after Smith moved to Milwaukee in 2018. He recalls falling in love with the city’s musical history, citing bands like Die Kreuzen and Violent Femmes as huge influences.

“I started talking to older rock musicians and uncovering the history of Milwaukee music,” Smith says. “It’s built on motorcycles and beer so it’s the most rock-and-roll city in America.”

Smith eventually met bassist Nicholas Abel while working together at Anodyne and bonded over similar music tastes. Longtime friend Tommy Curtis was brought on as lead guitarist, but the band struggled to find a drummer. So, instead of seeking out a drummer, Smith created one. Smith ended up teaching his friend Sam Broadnax, a saxophone player, how to drum.

“I liked the idea of having a drummer who was not a super technical session drummer to keep the raw live energy going, so that’s how Sam joined the band,” Smith says.

Rainbow Cobra released its first EP in July 2022, titled Falcon Yard EP – a trio of songs that was mostly written by Smith. At this point of the band’s life, Smith imagined that Rainbow Cobra would be his singer-songwriter project with a rotating cast making up his backing band. But with the new lineup’s chemistry, Rainbow Cobra shed its old skin and turned into a more collaborative experience, paving the way for Asleep at the Wheel, the band’s newest EP.

Thematically, Asleep at the Wheel is a four-track exploration of Smith’s struggles with alcohol.

“I recently got sober and admitted to recovery – a lot of the songs, for me, are about struggling with drinking and depression and the guilt that accompanies that,” Smith says.

The title of the EP, however, isn’t a reference to drunk driving.

“The title is about not taking responsibility for your life – letting someone else take the wheel or opting out – living your life without actually living it,” Smith says.

The EP kicks off with titular track “Asleep at the Wheel,” a song that is riddled with guitar solos and spastic saxophone runs. What starts off as a pretty straightforward, driving punk track continues to escalate, like a car that can only speed up. It’s a great introduction to the band’s sound – one that pays homage to bands like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements. If there’s one takeaway from “Asleep at the Wheel,” it’s that Rainbow Cobra is a punk band that can also rock ‘n’ roll.

“Death By Ohio” pumps the brakes, opening up and allowing Smith to flex his knack for writing catchy vocal melodies that suit his nasally punk-rock voice. The song concludes with a melancholic instrumental outro, a high point on the EP. Here, the band’s chemistry is so strong that the overlapping parts convey more emotion than the previous three minutes of the track – it’s difficult to not immediately be drawn into head-bobbing along.

“Never Turning Back,” an almost seven-minute track, is a somber ballad that flexes Rainbow Cobra’s ability to sound huge in one instance but then dial it back at a moment’s notice. Asleep at the Wheel closes with “Evil Staircase,” the heaviest track on the EP. Smith keeps his vocal parts subtle and brief as the band instead opts to use the final track to jam out one last time.

As Smith mentioned, Asleep at the Wheel is a reference to letting someone else control your life. With his new sobriety, the help of a new lineup and a great new EP, Smith has effectively taken the wheel back into his own hands. With plans to record new tracks at JAMDEK in Chicago, it won’t be long before Milwaukee gets to see where Smith and the rest of the band drive from here.

Catch Rainbow Cobra live at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn on Dec. 15.

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