Review & Video Premiere: Snail, Fractal Altar

snail fractal altar

[Click play above to stream the premiere of Snail’s video for ‘Mission From God.’ New album, Fractal Altar, releases April 30 on Argonauta Records. Video edited by Matt Lynch with footage by Kevin Spencer, Jennifer Hendrix-Johnson, Weston Radcliffe, and Laura Chavez and art by Ella Lynch.]

It is fitting and perhaps not coincidental that  Snail‘s fifth album, Fractal Altar, should arrive on the cusp of the band celebrating their 30th anniversary next year, since it is arguably most the work they’ve done since to harken back to their beginnings as a band. Their 1993 self-titled debut (review here) and 1994’s All Channels Are Open EP document those early days and even as its Seldon Hunt/Ella Lynch front and back covers embrace a yet-unseen complexity of design, the eight songs of the release itself work to in part to pare down some of the layering aspects and push the buzz tone of Mark Johnson‘s guitar to the fore with Matt Lynch‘s bass and Marty Dodson‘s drums accompanying with punkish speed on opening duo “Mission From God” and the righteously Fu Manchu-y “Nothing Left for You” — the latter also previously released as a single — before “Not Two” urges with proto-grunge-meets-desert-rock backing, “Bring your appetite/And we’ll devour each other.”

Of course, Fractal Altar, which is released through Argonauta Records some six years after Feral (review here) came out on Small Stone, has its dynamic and still finds the band trying new things. With recording by Lynch at All Welcome Records in Inglewood, California, and mixing/mastering at his own Mysterious Mammal studio, as well as some home recording by Jennifer Hendrix-Johnson in Seattle, and Lynch‘s daughter handling the back cover, Fractal Altar is nothing if not a family affair, but that perhaps emphasizes how much the band itself has become a kind of family, if one spread between Los Angeles (Lynch), San Diego (Dodson) and Seattle (Johnson), and it makes the elements of growth they showcase in their songwriting, be it in more nuanced arrangements of backing vocals from Lynch in “Hold On” or the subsequent “The False Lack,” or the rhythmic patience that allows for a sense of space in the latter there without resorting to an effects barrage, feel suitably homegrown.

No doubt part of the idea that Snail have stripped down somewhat on Fractal Altar comes from the fact that, at eight tracks and 37 minutes, the record is a full 10 minutes shorter than was Feral, but it’s also the band’s second long-player since returning to a three-piece configuration, their lineup having included guitarist Eric Clausen for their 2009 return-from-ether second album, Blood (review here) and its 2012 follow-up, Terminus (review here). To listen to the relative sprint with which they execute “Mission From God” at the outset or the later mellow-Nirvana-into-rolling-nod of the penultimate “Draining White,” Snail don’t sound like anything so much as themselves, and they sound free in terms of their craft. On their fourth release since coming back from a 16-year break, the most immediate attitude one can glean from listening is that they’re doing what they want to do.

snail fractal altar back

It’s not necessarily a turn toward the humble, but as the video for “Mission From God” finds Johnson playing the lead role of someone having taken enough acid to meet with the divine, the band come across as both willing to have fun — see also the Queens of the Stone Age-style handclaps and strum as “Not Two” approaches its midpoint and the all-out low-end-showcase lumber of the eight-plus-minute closing title-track, on which no less than Ed Mundell turns in a guest appearance on backward guitar — and aware of what they want to do and who they want to be as songwriters. “When the Tree Spoke,” which follows “The False Lack” and opens side B, is elemental Snail through and through. Johnson‘s vocals are melodic and laid back, topping a fervent but not necessarily aggressive groove, and the tones are subtly rich without being overdone. There’s flourish of keys and backward sampling and a call and response hook, but nothing that couldn’t be reproduced faithfully on stage, and they bring it all back around to the chorus in a way that’s atmospheric without veering into such overly cerebral fare as to be inconsistent with earlier pieces.

Further evidence that Snail know exactly what they’re doing here? The progression of the album. Even Feral, which was their most accomplished record to this point, didn’t draw the listener in with as much clarity of purpose as does Fractal Altar, and speaking as a fan of the band, these songs are a trip that’s a pleasure to take, from the hestitate-to-call-them-“simple”-bit-will-anyway-for-the-turn-of-phrase simple pleasures of the choruses in “Mission From God” and “Nothing Left for You,” down through the slowdown in “Not Two” and the bit of Pacific Northwest that shows up in “Hold On” (that main riff calling to mind earlier Red Fang all the more with the backing vocal treatment) ahead of “The False Lack” and “When the Tree Spoke” setting up the longer-unfolding “Draining White” and “Fractal Altar” itself, which, true to classic LP structure, prove to be as stratosphere-bound as Snail push on the album.

Lynch, who you’ll recall also mixed, seems to have been saving his bass punch for the start of the title cut, and fair enough. If the band are in direct conversation with Feral anywhere on Fractal Altar, it’s in the song that shares the release’s name, but they’re more willing to freak out in the apex here than they were on, say, “Thou Art That” or the similarly-extended thudder “Psilocybe” from the prior record. Ed Mundell shredding guitar in another dimension is never going to hurt either as regards setting that mood, and it’s as fitting as anything could hope to be that they end the lysergic march with a sudden stop as though, having finally tipped off the end of the world, there’s nothing left to greet them but vacuum. One wonders how long that section actually went, but cutting it cold serves its purpose, and perhaps the last message they’re sending to their audience is that Snail realize that too. Fractal Altar is the offering through which they are most themselves in songwriting and performance. They may dip here and there in terms of influences or pick out aspects and vibes as they go from others — hello, Blues Brothers — but there is no master being served here more than the songs, and that is as emblematic of their work on the whole as anything could be. Far out.

Snail, Fractal Altar (2021)

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2 Responses to “Review & Video Premiere: Snail, Fractal Altar

  1. SabbathJeff says:

    Riff worship: because sometimes, it does help to know that what they’re doing is a holy thing.

  2. The Ugfromumant says:

    Some speaker ripping riffage right there.

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