This is the first full-length collaboration between Sabra and Tabbal, but it is apparently also the sixth collaborative release between Portland's Beacon Sound and Lebanon's Ruptured Records (which was co-founded by Tabbal). While Tabbal's solo work has been a very enjoyable recent discovery for me, this is my first encounter with Julia Sabra, who is normally one-third of the excellent Beirut-based dreampop trio Postcards. The pair do have a history of working together, as Tabbal has co-produced several Postcards releases, but their creative union only began to take shape in the aftermath of Beirut's massive 2020 port explosion (which destroyed Sabra's home, badly injured her partner/bandmate Pascal Semerdjian, and displaced a whopping 300,000 people). Unsurprisingly, one of the primary themes of Snakeskin is the precarious concept of "home" and the "the disappearance of life as we know it" in a volatile and oft-violent world. Those are admittedly more urgent themes in Tabbal and Sabra's neck of the woods than some others (the album was also inspired by the 2021 Palestinian and the invasion of Armenia), but loss and uncertainty eventually come for us all and they make a universally poignant emotional core for an album. And, of course, great art can sometimes emerge from deeply felt tragedies and Tabbal and Sabra are a match made in heaven for that challenge, as Julia's sensuous, floating vocals are the perfect complement to Tabbal's gnarled and heaving soundscapes.
The first piece that Sabra and Tabbal wrote together was "Roots," which surfaced last year on Ruptured's The Drone Sessions Vol. 1 compilation. That piece is reprised here as the sublimely beautiful closer, which was a great idea as it is one of the strongest songs on the album. However, it also illustrates how this collaboration has evolved and transformed, as "Roots" has the feel of a dreamy, bittersweet synth masterpiece nicely enhanced with hazy, sensuous vocals. Execution-wise, it is damn hard to top, but the duo's more recent work feels like a creative breakthrough that is greater than the sum of its parts. Put more simply, the pair previously merged their two styles in an expected way to great effect, but then they started organically blurring into a single shared style and the results turned into something more memorable and transcendent. The first major highlight is "All The Birds," which calls to mind a collision between the murky, submerged dub of loscil and what I imagine a bossa nova album by Julee Cruise might have sounded like. As cool as all that sounds, however, the reality is even better due to the muscular, snaking synth undercurrent and surprise snare-roll groove.
As an aside, the Julee Cruise resemblance may be no coincidence at all, as one of Tabbal's earlier albums features an unambiguously Twin Peaks-inspired title.
Snakeskin's other immediately gratifying stunner is "In Our Garden," as ugly viscous synth sludge blossoms into an incredibly haunting vocal piece that grows steadily more compelling with psychotropic bird-like flickers and flutters, seismic crunches, and a delirious synth crescendo of swooning romantic grandeur shot through with deep sadness. That feat is immediately followed by my personal dark horse candidate for the album's centerpiece, "One By One." The thread that holds the piece together is Sabra's half-unsettling/half-mantric repetition of the title phrase, but the pair unleash one hell of a roiling and lysergically smeared maelstrom around it. Moreover, the production is absolutely dazzling, as it feels like an impossibly complex living tapestry of visceral textures and churning, heaving movement (and it somehow ends feeling akin to a hallucinatory bell ceremony in a lost mountain temple). Notably, there are only eight songs on the album, so Snakeskin would still be half-brilliant even if all the remaining songs sucked, but the other four songs are just a slightly lower tier of greatness, ranging from gnarled, feedback-ravaged ritualistic drone ("Snakeskin") to something resembling chopped, screwed, and deconstructed Crystal Castles ("Signs"). With eight songs and eight hits, this is a serious album-of-the-year contender.