PITCHFORK MEDIA REVIEW The Horse, the Rat and the Swan [Dot Dash; 2008] 8/10
The name Snowman may not jump out at the average North American, but in the quartet's hometown of Perth, Australia, a snowman is actually somewhat exotic-- given that the city has only recorded one temperature below freezing in its entire history, it stands to reason that there haven't been a great many of them built there. But while their name may be a little mundane, the music they make is anything but. Over three records, they've established themselves as a band bent on carving their own path, and The Horse, the Rat and the Swan is their most distinctive album yet.
It's also an album that deserves to be addressed as a whole, because it really is a complete listening experience without an obvious single. The band's music walks a strange, fine line, alien but not alienating, noisy but never grating. It's practically biblical in the way it strikes you with one hand while pulling you closer with the other. They masterfully layer their songs, countering shuddering guitar noise, amplifier feedback, and shouting with melodic backing vocals, occasional keyboard and violin, and an oceanic vat of reverb. There's a strong surf underpinning to the band's sound, in fact-- you don't get any pick-melting Dick Dale guitar runs, but the guitars nip at the album's edges with intermittent bursts of booming twang. Drummer Ross DiBlasio steadfastly avoids playing straight rock beats, preferring to guide the songs with deliberate patterns that frequently take on a propulsive, tribal quality.
So while there's not really a word for what they do, there are enough familiar signposts that it's fairly easy to get into. Guitarist Joe McKee, guitarist/violinist Aditya "Andy" Citawarman, and bassist Olga Hermanniusson share the vocal duties. Citawarman handles the contorted, shouted leads, McKee offers deep, oddly calming intonations, and Hermaniusson is something of a melodic balm for Citawarman's most ragged outbursts. Opener "Our Mother (She Remembers)" plays well with that tension, as Citawarman gets himself so worked up he can barely pronounce the words he's singing, while the backing vocals come in like ice on a sore. The album is impeccably sequenced, following the hellish surf-punk fit of "Daniel Was a Timebomb" with "A Re-Birth", a low-key track that seems to interpret its title as the band being recast as machines-- by the end it sounds as though you're listening to the welders and riveters on the assembly line.
The album emerges from the dark on closer "Diamond Wounds", with McKee crooning Bowie-like about awakening from the wreckage-- the shifting arrangement is maybe the only thing that's ever simultaneously reminds me of the Surfaris and Flying Saucer Attack. If anything on the album is close to a standout, it's probably "We Are the Plague", an apocalyptic electro track with processed verse vocals, cool, clear "ooh ooh"s, and bouncing, buzzy bassline. But that doesn't really seem to be the point, given the palpable, primal journey the band takes on the album. You'll catch little bits of influence here and there-- from King Crimson to the Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds to the Atlantics to Bowie to the Pop Group-- but it all adds up to a unique whole and a great album.