From the opening guitar howls and languid bassline that begin opener “Building a Haunted House,” West Coast (Seattle and Los Angeles) outfit Snail quickly affirm a shift in focus on Feral, their fourth album. It comes coupled with a few noteworthy changes in circumstance. Their story has been one of resurgence since first getting back together to release their sophomore album, Blood (review here), on MeteorCity in 2009 as the four-piece of guitarist/vocalist Mark Johnson, guitarist Eric Clausen, bassist/recording engineer Matt Lynch and drummer Marty Dodson. Blood arrived some 16 years after their 1993 self-titled debut (review here), which had only previously received follow-up in 1994’s All Channels are Open EP, then the swansong for the original trio of Johnson, Lynch and Dodson.
In 2012, the four-piece Snail returned with a fresh batch of material in the form of the more straightforward, bigger-riffed and independently-released Terminus (review here), which despite its ominous title was not the end of the band nor of their creative progression, as their new album, Feral, demonstrates. It is their first for Small Stone Records and topped off with cover art by Seldon Hunt, it’s also their first post-reunion release to feature only the band’s three founding members, Clausen and the remaining trio having parted ways in 2013. That in itself is probably the biggest change as regards the eight-song/47-minute offering — much of what has made Snail‘s work so enjoyable these last six years holds firm — but a generally less aggressive vibe than what they showed on Terminus serves them remarkably well throughout Feral‘s span, and from the moment the dreamy roll of “Building a Haunted House” takes hold, Snail enact a fluidity that carries through the rest of the tracks while also veering through changes in tempo and mood to enrich the listening experience. I am a fan of the band, but to be blunt, Feral is easily among the best records I’ve heard this year.
“Building a Haunted House” ends big and noisy, and “Smoke the Deathless” provides immediate contrast in a thickened shuffle that also heralds one of the catchiest choruses on offer, pulling back the forward drive to thrust into more open-sounding chug, backing vocals behind Johnson — both Lynch and Dodson contribute vocals throughout; Lynch also keyboards — preceding a quick lead that finds Johnson stepping up with no trouble as the lone six-stringer in the group. Blink and you’re in the chorus again, and blink again and “Smoke the Deathless”‘ 3:35 are up, Snail building considerable momentum into the middle-ground groove of “A Mustard Seed,” which brings back Clausen for a guest spot on rhythm guitar, the mix thick and encompassing with the rumble of Lynch‘s bass and Dodson‘s hi-hat cutting through even as his ride seems to add to the wash.
Another hook enters a quick build that cuts back to the verse — which one might almost be tempted to call “bouncing” if it weren’t so substantial; elephants don’t bounce — and ends even quicker than did “Smoke the Deathless,” but if Snail seem to be working at a sprint, it’s all a setup. A brilliant setup, but a setup all the same. Already they’ve gone from the repurposed ’80s metallisms of Terminus into more heavy psych-rocking fare, keeping a forward-moving core, but generally paying more attention to atmosphere, and much to the benefit of the songs, which remain grounded in engaging choruses despite this spaciousness. Well, the 10-minute “Thou art That” throws the formula out the window, and (wonderfully) slams into a wall of engrossing, moody psychedelic rock and features the most complex structure Snail have proffered to-date as well as the central riff of the album, which is a chorus unto itself. Starting quiet and unfolding gracefully until the keys and grandiose hits finish out, it’s the kind of cut that, on its own, can make a record, and brings to mind the best of what Snail have done since their reactivation, bridging a gap between heavy-as-hell riffing and more ethereal sonic spaces.
I have to believe that’s where the side breaks for the vinyl, and the aftermath of “Thou art That” is nothing if not a moment worthy of a breather to flip a platter. I also have to believe that when it comes to following up such a landmark track, it’s experience that led Snail to put “Born in Captivity” in the next spot, Dodson‘s drums serving as a we’re-not-done-yet signal that picks up a speedier pace and carries through an almost garage-punk boogie that seems to recall “Smoke the Deathless” until in its second half it transitions into an almost Beatlesian keyboard line for a bridge that adds a touch of classic weirdness to the otherwise forward motion, smoothing back into the chorus, which comes to incorporate that same line as it makes its way toward the end, cutting out finally to give the guitar the final say just before the five-minute mark, at which point Dodson and Lynch begin “Derail,” a slower, bigger and doomier feature for Johnson‘s lead work that conjures a wash in deep-running layers of guitar and bass and then cuts them down suddenly to give the chug of the verse total sway, balancing one off the other until finally at the end everything turns to noise.
The penultimate “Psilocybe” starts with a sense of heft worthy of Torche, and plods its beginning as the initial movement of a steady roll and nod that takes hold and does not let go for the first several minutes, even through a classy, melodic chorus, until at about the three-minute mark Snail break almost to silence and start a psychedelic build that carries them through the next two minutes until the next verse resumes the roll. The second time around, the turn is into a plotted-sounding jam, or an instrumental break at very least, that’s met with strange whispering voices, watery effects, more keys — Lynch plays a huge role atmospherically — and as the track devolves, that steady thunderplod from the beginning. After an extended wash of an outro, Feral almost sounds like it’s over, but the funky wah that commences a lonely tale in “Come Home” — its depressive lyric delivered in a soulful melody that makes the actual listening experience much more than the downer it might otherwise be — is a last-minute turn that winds up expanding the entire scope for the album as a whole, making it not only an easily-justified inclusion, but serving a genuine purpose to the record’s benefit.
A last hook, “Come home girl, I need you/You calm the voice in my head,” etc., brings together classic soul longing with a heavy rock push, once again bolstered by Lynch‘s keys, and rounds out Feral with a gorgeous, organ-laced last melodic dive into surrounds-your-head psychedelia, which has been the specialty all along. As Snail have moved past the novelty of their initial reunion, they’ve managed to amass a steady following, and Feral will no doubt add to that, but more importantly, it shows that even in the inevitably rawer form of a trio, they’re more than able and more than willing to continue to grow their sound and develop their approach. The final result is that Feral is as full creatively as it is sonically, and that four albums in, Snail are still ready to explore new ground and incorporate that into their own immediately recognizable context. It is their finest work to-date, and only seems to set up continued future expansion.