The last time we checked in with Snowman they were creating a mutated cacophony of jagged psychobilly guitars and colossal primordial drums that sounded born from some hellish gothic insane asylum. Their 2008 sophomore record The Horse, The Rat, and The Swan was a document of unrelenting tension and violent release. Over the giant tribal thudding with a darkly atmospheric reach, the vocals ranged from a Jim Reid croon to a Frank Black shriek, caught in blackly lit reverberation. If things weren’t collapsing into syncopated metallic guitar noise, it was biding its time behind a veil of quietly evil vocal harmonies, waiting to aurally destroy whatever prey it had set its sites on. The record was a near full sensory experience – the copper scent of blood an almost permeable part of the ride. The Horse went largely unnoticed by the larger indie landscape and the group has since disbanded.
Snowman moved from their home of Perth, Australia to London quickly following the release of The Horse and they did what hard working bands do: travel the continent and play show after show until you can’t anymore. The group’s third record, Absence, has reportedly been in the works since around the time of their immigration, and despite its posthumous 2011 release, it brings Snowman sharply back into focus as one of the most compelling experimental-psychedelic-whatever rock groups to have made a stand in the past ten or so years.
Absence takes on the ethereal and unconscious where its predecessor was immediate and visceral. The primeval mainstays are just as stolidly in place, if not more so, but things have receded into the distance, letting a starlit atmosphere take precedence. Vocally, no one really takes the lead, letting a myriad of voices waft together in an elemental amalgam of harmonized whispers and chants, joining an array of softly affected guitars and gigantically physical synthesizers. It’s no less powerful or earnest than previous material from this group. In a lot of ways Absence feels like the deeply troubled dream following The Horse‘s bloody massacre.
Snowman still manages to capture a palpable sense of tension, but here it exists beneath a more abstracted and obscured surface. One of the centerpieces, “Seance,” marches around an intricately scattered rhythm and a haunting, chiming almost-not-there melody that floats in to punctuate the imminent imprisonment of a pervading nightmare. The vocals seem to dance hand-in-hand around a solitary wavering flame – angelic voices whispering ghost stories and chanting dangerously untended desires. By the end, the whole track loses any ground on which to stand as the vocals and synths stretch out in lulling vertical waves as if to give in to bodily transcendence.
“Seance” is followed by “A.” The instrumental, based around a repeating synth sequence and a bent descending piano melody, gives voice to another ceaseless aspect of Absence. Snowman is still invested in tribal percussion dynamics, but here the drums don’t so much pound as they malevolently gestate, building toward an abrasive crescendo that never quite arrives. “Hyena” rides along a chopsticks-on-jars sounding rhythm while a piano exhales solitary notes at odd intervals and the group chants “hyena” in various syllabic exaggerations. The drums are as textural in some cases as the vocals or guitars. The more detailed percussive flourishes find their way into the corners of the sound while the deep thrum of the toms remain the most immediate part of the whole record.
“A” is followed by standout “Memory Lost,” which might be the only track where one solitary voice takes the vocal reigns. It is an oddity, though not unwelcome, to find Snowman completely changing gears in the vocal department after the scream/sing dynamic on The Horse helped them create even more distinction for themselves. But Absence makes it pretty clear Snowman is (or was) a group who approaches a record as a whole and there’s obviously a conscious sonic thesis at work. On “Memory Lost” the ghostly falsetto is drenched in gobs of reverb. Initially, it quavers softly as the menacing drum and bass steadily climb, but by the time the determinable beat has dropped out, the beautiful high-pitched croon is gliding right alongside the mountainous synths.
It’s really a shame knowing this is Snowman’s swan song. They were never a group that managed any type of indie-wide anticipation, remaining tangled in the categorical sub-sub-indie culture of “experimental rock” (which people seem to have a declining patience for in 2011). They were easily one of the most matured and consistently captivating rock groups to pass us by, and Absence ends their short run on a very high note.