Even if the record contained nothing but audio of the members of Snail making and subsequently eating a sandwich (yes, they’d share), the mere fact that Terminus follows just three years behind their 2009 outing, Blood, is something of a miracle in terms of pace. It had been 16 years between the All Channels are Open EP and the band’s self-titled debut were released in the early ‘90s and when Blood came out to wide underground acclaim on MeteorCity, so before one even presses play on Terminus, there’s a more than 500 percent improvement in timing that’s at least worth a nod. As a fan of Blood’s blend of grunge, stoner and psychedelic rock (review here), I’m glad it didn’t take the band another 16 years to follow it up. Snail’s self-released third album, then, is even more intriguing a prospect because it’s all new. Where Blood was crafted at least in part from demos left over from the band’s original run – to be clear: they’d broken up, it didn’t just take them 16 years to put out their second record – Terminus is 46 minutes of material riffed out since the last album was put to tape, and for that alone, perhaps even more than its predecessor, Terminus marks a new beginning for the band. That’s somewhat ironic given the album’s title, but more importantly, the 10 tracks are a reasonable extension of the ideas that Snail presented last time. Recorded by bassist/backing vocalist Matt Lynch at his Mysterious Mammal Studios in Los Angeles and by vocalist/guitarist Mark Johnson at his home in Seattle, Washington, Terminus has a deceptive smoothness that matches well the songwriting and semi-psych feel of some of the tracks, pointing to a more natural sound than the process that actually birthed it might generally convey. Credit for that has to go to Lynch, who also mixed, mastered and wrote a couple tracks, but the songcraft of Johnson and fellow guitarist Eric Clausen has a major role as well. Snail are straightforward without being dull, psychedelic without being indulgent and – here – metal without being metal.
In the recently-posted interview, Johnson cites early ‘80s metal as a driving influence behind his riffing on Terminus, and perhaps slowed down and backed by Lynch’s formidable bass and drummer Marty Dodson’s stomping groove, one can hear shades of Ozzy Osbourne’s first couple records in the creepy beginning of opener “Recursion.” More importantly than pinpointing derivations, Snail’s capacity for songwriting has taken a considerable leap since Blood, and where those songs were catchy and well-composed, Terminus has a more conscious feel structurally. The album is split into sides A and B, and between “Recursion” and “Galaxies’ Lament,” it wastes no time in displaying foundational choruses that carry through the entirety of the first half. Whatever sonic elements they might draw from metal’s golden age, Snail are still transposing them onto heavy riff rock, and that comes through both in Johnson’s work and in the Clausen-penned “Matchbook,” which has a kind of nursery rhyme rhythm in its verse that opens to an equally driving chorus. The contributions of Clausen and Lynch to the songwriting (I’d credit Dodson creatively as well across the board, since I don’t think anyone was coming up with his drum parts for him) provide diversity alongside Johnson’s tracks, but one of the strongest factors maintained between Blood and its follow-up is the overall flow from one song to the next. Terminus doesn’t veer from its forward momentum until it wants to, Johnson’s “Hippy Crack” building from a quiet bridge to an apex over which the six-stringer can’t help but alternate between screams and growls – the only such abrasive vocals to appear on the album – before Lynch’s “Burn the Flesh” comes on to revel in its dirty rock groove to end side A of the album. Topped with just a touch of countrified twang and an underlying ring-out that only makes it seem larger, the central riff of “Burn the Flesh” is one of the album’s most nod-inducing, but the song is even more effective as it quiets down for the verse, Johnson’s vocals cooing over Lynch’s fuzz bass before righteous guitar leads transition between the verses.
As Terminus hasn’t yet been released on vinyl, the “sides” are hypothetical, but even so, each has a personality of its own, and something else this album has in common with the one before it is that Snail save their psychedelic excursions for later into the record. Looking at it with the linear front-to-back flow of a CD, “Burn the Flesh” is a transitional point to what the remaining five tracks are moving toward – a direct shift that occurs halfway through. The shorter, mostly-instrumental and brilliantly-named “Love Theme from Snail” introduces side B with thick riffing and a Beatles-esque wash of melodic vocals, eventually chanting the line “Peace and happiness.” Lynch’s bass grounds a section of guitar noise, and they hit on a solo and instrumental outro, Dodson all the while offering one of Terminus’ best plods. At first it seems like “Ritual” – the longest song on the album at 6:11 – is going to renew the more straightforward approach of earlier cuts like “Galaxies’ Lament,” but its chorus is sleepier, whatever cymbal-driven bombast there might be in the verse, and a stonerly bridge does well to set up what follows on “Circles.” Still, its riff is undeniably heavy, and it’s “Circles” and “Try to Make It” that really provide the psychedelic meat of the album, Johnson adding organ and other keys to the guitars to emphasize a later ‘60s vibe. That vibe blends further into “Circles” with a winding guitar figure somewhat reminiscent of Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s fetishizing Eastern scales, but either way, the mood is less raucous and more tripped out, and “Try to Make It” pushes more into hippie thematics with tambourine and organ sounds. Unlike “Circles,” however, “Try to Make It” cycles twice through a quiet/loud shift that’s surprising the first time and riotously satisfying the second, Johnson adding whispers and other swirls to lull the listener before the song returns from the ether before the 4:30 mark and spends its last minute-plus being engulfed by the guitar solo.
They close – fittingly enough – with the song “Terminus,” and use the album’s title-track as a means of summarizing the scope of the songs before it, moving from a subdued guitar/bass/vocal beginning to incorporating heavier distortion and a pulsing kick drum from Dodson to riff the record to its finish. It’s easy to read into that tradeoff, what Snail are perhaps thinking of setting up for their next outing, hinting at some cross-album transition to the fourth offering’s heavy start, but a sample of a child saying, “Okay, it’s time to wake up now,” is the actual end of the album, so clearly the idea is just for the song “Terminus” to function as providing closure for Terminus itself. Being generally averse to artists putting (presumably their own) children on recordings, I can’t really condone such behavior – implying the journey of the album has all been a dream somehow cheapens it as well – but at least it’s over quick, and the title-track seems more about serving the whole of the record than standing on its own. That is, it sounds like it was written with being the closing title-track in mind, so as the riff fades out, it’s more the overall impression of Terminus that’s left behind rather than the song itself. Just as well, since Snail have already spent the prior 42 minutes building such a strong sense of atmosphere. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some respected underground label picked up Terminus for a vinyl release, but for now, even on the CD, the four-piece conveys an encompassing sensibility that builds on what they were able to accomplish with Blood by expanding the range of influence. Whatever happens next time out and however long it might be before their fourth album arrives, Snail have proven with Terminus that they’re more than just a reunited stoner rock curio and that they can write songs worthy of any of their peers in whatever subgenre designation you might want to hoist upon them. Psych-sludge, maybe? Riff-doom? Whatever it is, it works, and at this point, it’s almost entirely their own.California, Seattle, Snail, Washington