Snailbones is a noise rock band from the Pacific Northwest who’ve just released a new album titled Keelhaul ‘Em All. The members are Timothy Francis (guitar/vocals), Kelly Minton (bass/vocals) and Drew Owens (drums/screams) though it also seems everybody contributes “screams”! 

The Snailbones proudly call themselves a “very hard working band” and the stats bear them out. Formed in Portland, Oregon in 2017, they gigged relentlessly until the pandemic hit. During their off-time they recorded two full-length albums: Tinnitus Alrightus and the current Keelhaul ‘Em All. They engineered themselves, with mixing by Matt Boynton (who previously worked with the Breeders) and mastering by Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service. They also have tons of YouTube and Spotify followers and are soon to be touring and playing music festivals in Canada. They’ve also just recorded a new album with famed producer Steve Albini, which is appropriate as this current album totally reminds me of Nirvana’s In Utero through its songwriting, performance and production.

First to the album cover, which is a somewhat grisly but compelling portrait of the band floating in the sea, apparently after just being keel-hauled (if you don’t know what that is, look it up. Too awful to describe!) Yet there’s a playfulness to the imagery, in that it also very much resembles the three ghosts who wind up in your car at the end of the Disneyland “Haunted Mansion” ride.

As previously mentioned, fans of Nirvana will “get” this music right away. It’s hard rocking post-punk with blistering guitars, aggressive rhythms and wailing, Cobain-like vocals. Some of the songs have that classic quiet-to-loud dynamic best known from Smells Like Teen Spirit. The sound quality is beyond excellent, which is always tricky to pull off with a loud band. As one listener noted, it sounds like Albini is already producing them!

“Mouse Clap” blasts in with what sounds like dying wooly mammoths stuck in tar, groaning and crying against their impending demise. The song proper starts with surprisingly traditional guitar riffs, then pits the bass melodies of the electric guitar with prominent drum blasts and a narrative-like vocal. Francis’ lyrics deal with a lot of pirate imagery (“Around here that’s what we call mutiny / Walk the plank!!”). Death rattle screams soon follow. There’s a very cool middle section where the guitar and drums trade quick, complex patterns before racing to the end of the song with more wailing and sonic-speed riffing. 

“Dead Inside” has the most Spotify plays and is coincidentally the most Nirvana-like track. On this song I first noticed the bass being given more sonic room to be as inventive and aggressive as the guitar and drums. Basically this song is built on single guitar chords matched with single words like “Dead, dead… inside, inside…” At just two minutes, the song’s sudden ending is a total surprise. 

“Sweet and Serene” telegraphs its style from the title, as the boys strum and sing like the opening of Cobain’s “Heart Shaped Box.” The quiet-loud dynamic is very much in play here, and the boys are able to wring an entire universe of sounds out of basically two chords. Unusually the electric guitar still sounds recognizably like a guitar playing actual chords, even through the distortion. The capper is a rudimentary but effective fuzz lead solo.

“Slave to Hate” has the tonality of classic prog rock, if not necessarily the structure. MInton’s bass has the Rickenbaker fluidity of Yes’ Chris Squire while the guitar has the trebly bite of Steve Howe. Aside from the screaming, the blues chord structure owes a lot to the stripped down rock of New Wave. In “Floating” Francis has one of his most Cobain-like vocals, while the fairly simple guitar shredding could have been the backing pass for a Jimi Hendrix tune. It also sounds like a guest female vocalist sings over the band’s screaming at the end.

The main riff of “Death Face” is a perfect example of this band’s crisp, fully formed sound. They’re sharp, loud and precise in the same breath. It’s a simple two-chord backing for more Francis vocal histrionics but the band makes it all work, including another unexpectedly gnarly guitar solo. “Dissension” is built on sharp, slashing, staccato riffs, a galloping beat and of course screamed lyrics. The Morse Code-style bass could have come out of DEVO. “Break Apart the Day” again features an unnamed female singer, giving this a Breeders-X energy. “Bury Me Meow” is a funny title, as I constantly misread it as “Bury Me NOW.” For this final track Francis does a final Cobain-In Utero tribute as the quiet-loud dynamic is driven to the extreme. It’s a perfect closer, encapsulating all that came before.

To sum, the Snailbones do sound like other bands, but their angst and energy level are fully their own, and these songs make their point without an ounce of fat. Love it!

Garth Thomas