Azalia Snail has been making her uniquely sweet, viscous,
noise-inflected, tempo-bending psychedelia for almost two decades,
recording a dozen or so albums between 1990 and 2001 on labels including
Funky Mushroom and Dark Beloved Cloud. Now after a five-year break, she's
back with a disc on Silver Lake's experimental True Classical Records, a
dense haze of swooning vocals and seething synths cut by abrasive swaths of
indie guitar mayhem. The music has its share of discordant moments and
harsh textures, but somehow these are enveloped in a softening sheen; as
Snail sings in the opening track, it is "Heavy mental/ Honeysuckle gentle."
The sounds incorporated into Snail's slow-moving, trippy meditations
include both traditional and unusual rock-band instruments. Snail
accompanies herself on guitar, keyboards and percussion. She is backed
primarily by Gary Ramon (once of the British psyche band Sun Dial), who
punctuates her mind-warping soundscapes with bass and drums. Brian Cassels
and Peter Wulff add trumpet and sax to a number of the cuts, while Tanya
Haden (most likely Petra Haden's sister) plays cello on
"Disintegration." The trumpet melody that emerges from tangled guitars and
buzzing sax on "Casuarina Trees," along with "Mint Stallion," one of two
pure instrumentals, is mesmerizing, pure and dreamlike.
The songs with words are necessarily more like pop, though pop of a
loosely-structured and free-spirited sort. Snail's words are elliptical
and elusive, hinting at mind states rather than telling stories. "Alcazar,"
one of the disc's best cuts, seems to be about the limits of materialism,
while "Scenescape" extols the virtues of being oneself. There's a lilt
and distortion to the music that enlivens these well-worn topics and makes
them seem fresh and relevant.
The disc's longest track, "Distintegration," is also a highlight, combining
in one mind-changing interval all the things that make Azalia Snail so
interesting. The song opens with a slow, percolating electro beat, then
weaves in long slow tones of trumpet and saxophone, sometimes together,
sometimes in tonal conflict. Snail's ethereal voice drifts in after about
a minute, with abstract, koan-like verses. Snail has, at least in the
past, used psychedelic drugs to hone her artistic vision, and these words
seem to come from an alternate, non-linear reality: "A dent takes its
shape, is reversed, then erased/ Developing a sheen like seashells
disgraced/ Dissolve and distill till nothing's left/ Little to lose when you
consider your theft." The whole thing coalesces into waves of shifting
sensation, a miasma of sound shot through with sudden piercing shafts of
The final, uncredited track is a cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love,"
tripped-out, drum-machine-embellished and wrapped in reverbed haze. Snail
finds unexpected mystery in this disco-era song, slowing it down and
turning it into a minimalist chant. It's not entirely successful, and
certainly not as interesting as her originals, but it does make you
consider the song in a new light.
There's a hypnotic quality to these songs, a smooth surface that rests on
layers of voice, keyboard tones, brass and saxophones. It is hard to hear
the components of any given song as they move in and out of focus, yet they
combine in a lithe and nuanced whole.