While many artists are inspired by relationships with friends and lovers, math rock outfit Arma Secreta (Portuguese for secret weapon) tends to cover more imaginative territory. Their forthcoming album, A Century's Remains, contains songs covering a wide array of topics including a brainwashing operation disguised as a hair salon, two aspiring ninjas working at a car wash, and a song about an amateur astronomer obsessed with premillennialist eschatology -- which is the study of final things -- death and judgment, heaven and hell, the end of the world.
They don't apologize for the obscurity of their music.
"I don't write music to be understood by other people; I write music that I think is fun to play, and I write it for my own benefit," explains singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wark. "I try to write stuff that doesn't sound like anyone else, and I don't listen to a lot of new bands because I don't want to be influenced by them."
Arma Secreta was formed in 2003 by high school friends Wark and drummer Brad Bean. It's not out of the ordinary for a band to want to sound original, but Wark's particular place in life while recording last year was extraordinary. The 26-year-old musician was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer shortly after the band was conceived.
The illness deeply affected Bean.
"I was really scared, heartbroken, and I mean, I guess, all of the normal things when people find out that someone they know has cancer," says Bean. "It was pretty surreal because he was so young."
After seeing a brigade of doctors, having surgery and being prescribed chemotherapy, Wark and his wife decided he should take a leap of faith and treat his illness with little more than the food he ate.
"I went to a completely vegan diet, and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and drank so many carrots I turned orange for a year," Wark says.
"And all this time I thought it wasn't easy being green," jokes Bean.
Wark was pronounced cancer-free by doctors in 2004, and he was determined to get back to making music.
"Once it became clear that I was gonna live, then it became clear that we had to make this record, so we stopped playing shows to focus on writing and recording," Wark says.
Bean and Wark began recording with engineer Kevin Cubbins at Easley McCain Recording and luckily had copies of most of their music before a fire in March destroyed the studio vaults. Wark and Bean took the loss of Easley as an opportunity to build their own studio, Missile Silo, in the back of Bean's family's furniture business.
After finishing the record earlier this year, Wark and Bean set out to find a bass player so they could play their songs live. They consider Michael Brandon the final piece to the Arma Secreta puzzle.
"There are really six things that you look for in someone before you ask them to join your band," explains Wark. "They need to possess skill, personal style, commitment, dependability, personality, and the last one is, 'do they have a van?' And he did, so he was in."
The band recently has been playing live shows, preferring all-age venues like The Complex on Madison and the Skatepark in Cordova.
"We don't want to play to the same Midtown crowd every week," Wark says. "We play in Southaven, Bartlett, Nashville."
Odd time signatures, weird song structure, and a lack of the same verse-chorus-verse structure that is the signature of most rock albums are not the only ways the band has set their debut album apart. It has already sparked interest from three independent record labels.
"The theme of the album (due out in March) is two things," Wark says. "One is all the art work in the album is a photo essay done by an aerial photographer -- basically what was left over after a century of industrialization, junkyards, strip mines, iron ore and process plants, but it also refers to that the songs are a lot of ideas I had before the cancer, before the turn of the century."