SNAIL – Fractal Altar (2021)REVIEW

Seattle’s Snail weren’t born from nothing yet the sonic misfires and rings of sweet smelling resin staining their fingerprints over the last couple decades have been effectively brushed off and aside at every turn. Each new release feels as if it were either a reinvention or iteration and, at least until now, it’d always been one or the other. To land upon their discography seeking highlights feels like an upward climb to start, the cachet of being present for the death of grunge and alleged “birth” of a new 90’s perspective on stoner rock (and stoner/doom metal) only really sticks to ’em because they were smoked out and slow enough to earn their namesake to start. The past is, in this case, largely irrelevant enough to warrant slapping the rose-colored glasses off your face — If you’re lucky enough to be about as old as I am, but not much older, a record like ‘Snail‘ (1993) sells itself as an alternative rock record most would’ve skipped; An earnest but forced post-prime “grunge”-adjacent record from a green band (in every sense) who’d been going for it without fully getting there. It’d bear some lasting resonance for the sake of being recorded at Razor’s Edge Recording and by the guy (Jon Burnside) who’d done ‘Shitfun’ and early Melvins through ‘Houdini’, giving little reason to mention the record in relation to early Sleep as folks often do today. They did play shows together a bit, though, fair enough. For the sake of not sounding like a twat to start, I only downplay these early achievements from the brief formative years of Snail (including the “for fun” muss of ‘All Channels Open‘) to emphasize the better work coming along with their rebirth, the magickal shit that doesn’t need big names or some bottled lineage to stand on its own six legs. ‘Fractal Altar’ isn’t stuck on the past itself, but the trip getting there is yet vital context towards the greater pay off of its sublime stoner-metallic doomed rock hybridization.

From devout SoCal Christian crossover-thrash in the 80’s to yee-haw Texas-sized groove metal in the late 90’s whatever filled in space before, after, and in-between Snail‘s formation in 1992, split in 1995, and resurrection in 2008 lands as generally irrelevant in terms of style. They’ve all managed decades of experience within the rock and metal spectrum, though, and these gains particularly show on these last two self-produced efforts, including ‘Fractal Altar’. We’ve gotten primo stuff from Snail beyond 2008 in general, starting with their way underrated “comeback” record ‘Blood‘ (2009), the band had clearly found their greater spiritual impetus and passion for the project upon return. The really good stuff, the stoney and kinda gloomy-doomed desert fuzzed and “ethereal deadpan” artistic voice of Snail arrives with that second album and by all means it still acts as a vague template for their action beyond. A fourth member, Eric Clausen, featured on ‘Blood’ and what I’d arguably consider their least compelling release (‘Terminus‘, 2012) but it seems the band would return to the comfort zone of a trio by the time their masterpiece (‘Feral‘, 2015) was completed, featuring some of Clausen‘s work. This’d been undoubtedly one of the best records of that year and still one of the most ‘complete’ stoner metal/rock hybridizations ever for the sake of the holes it bores through dark and what sparks of light are let in, an album of eclectic taste and brilliantly contrasting elements. Granted my listening habits weren’t so ambitious six years ago but I’d had ‘Feral’ in my ears on every walk I took and at least sixty days worth of work and study time, minimum. I’d somehow become a zealous follower by way of this indoctrination and I’d suggest full immersion unto ‘Feral’ to even begin to comprehend how they’ve vaulted off its dark-side towards this blissful, sometimes fed-up and flattened psychedelic doom rock record.

Whether you’re stoned to shit or not at all, if the music hitting you is intended as prime categoric heavy psychedelic blues rock (at hi-fi temperatures) I figure it’d better be memorable, if not entirely immersive in its rhythmic movement. This is more or less the “it factor” Snail have had from birth to death and especially in resurrection, a knack for writing songs that are catchy and moody at once without going full bore heroin-slamming twentysomething weird. It’d taken a while to get there with the goods because I don’t see these guys as “shortcut” rock stars but folks concerned with songcraft that must land in their own idiosyncratic voice and well, it needs to land at all. ‘Feral’ represented a peak in ornate structures, swipes between stadium sized heavy psych reveals, intimately clever coughed-up sludgers and beyond — ‘Fractal Altar’ is by contrast more of a steady progression, taking a most cohesive thoroughfare through its greater jam while excising some of the previous record’s theatrical mid-70’s rock ambition pulled back. This “intimate and clever” ideal, which most folks will read as their grunge-era sensibilities wisened into stoner rock ease is key in appreciation of the full listen. My thoughts start to read a bit déjà vu per the stoner rock reviews I’d written back in the late 90’s and “Mission From God” for sure wobbles in tearing some of that good ole fuzz up with its weaving riffs, buzzed tone and the expert reveal of the chorus. We are on a ride from the start and Snail manage to maintain steady momentum side to flipside.

Nothing Left For You” is a fuck off out of a dark place, sure it hits like a prime Queens of the Stone Age bop right from the start but there isn’t any particular tongue-in-cheek here in giving that final floaty push away from someone else’s nonsense. This is exactly the sort of reveal I’d loved in digging deeper into ‘Feral’, you think you’ve got some blissful jog of a song in mind but the lyrics couldn’t be more clear and honest in their reaction and purpose. This’d been an important wave to hit folks with to start as it’d been chosen as the first single from the album and well worth it for the hype generated. From there we push into “Only One” a piece that could be considered signature Snail in its voice and development but also kind of shaking a bit of ‘The Guessing Game’-era Cathedral ass during the chorus. Side A more or less proves itself golden from the first listen, I think I’d bought the record before I was halfway through SoCal stoner metal jogger “Hold On” and yes, he is saying exactly what it sounds like in the third verse.

Oddly enough it was the kick-off for Side B that’d end up sticking to my latest neurons best, either because “The False Lack” and “When the Tree Spoke” directly built upon the strongest dynamics presented within ‘Feral’ or simply because they’d hit the right wave of chilled out dad rock for folks who grew up in the 90’s like I did. Either way the key thing for my own taste as the album calmed was Snail always find a point of heaviness in each song (excepting “Draining White”) and the nine minute Alice in Chains-esque forlorn and sludged dirge of the title track makes up for this with an even deeper downer and a wash of psychedelic disassociation as a send-off. It wasn’t until I’d had the full ride of ‘Fractal Altar’ in mind that I could equate its value with the too-high standard of ‘Feral’ and see it as a progression, I don’t doubt it was a trip to get here because you can read the writing on the wall as the record plays. I’ll be glad to be proven wrong but, this is likely the only “stoner”-whatever record I’ll need all year. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Fractal Altar
LABEL(S):Argonauta Records
RELEASE DATE:April 30th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Stoner/Doom Rock
Psychedelic Stoner Metal

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