At a recent Dick Diver show in Sydney, Al Montfort’s on-stage appearance felt like that of a sitcom character as received by a live studio audience. He would smile wryly, and before he had spoken, the crowd would meet him with whoops and hollers. I found it unsettling that an audience could so outwardly and unquestionably enjoy a moment that hadn’t happened yet, but I supposed that was the strength of his charm. If Al Montfort has the ability to turn a crowded room into a canned laugh track as part of Dick Diver, then he has let that slide for his solo tape. On the Snake cassette, there’s very little to laugh along with.
Snake was recorded by Montfort both on his travels in India and on his return home. On it, songs are written around any one of a saxophone, guitar, organ, drum machine or – more unexpectedly – Eastern instruments like the Sarangi and Assamese buffalo horn. The tape sounds very insular (as you’d expect from a bedroom/dorm-room recording), but that feels like a requirement. It explores ideas that would probably be rapidly vetoed by a group, and it’s those undesirable sounding concepts that are so deeply affecting.
Culturally and emotionally, this tape is flooded with loneliness, and Montfort drives at feelings of alienation via two approaches. One is to mindlessly wander over a foreign instrument as a backdrop; the other is to tunelessly narrate wayward thoughts over cheap, conventional instrumentation. There are also meditative moments subtly disguised as drawn out lyrics. It’s a travelers tape, and the feelings of culture shock, confusion and neurotic personal explorations won’t be lost on anyone who has ever walked down a foreign street as the lives of strangers played out unsettlingly.
In looking at these ideas, Snake doesn’t force the point. There are no over-literal stories or blatant musical moments of East-West fusion, just backdrops and vocal snippets left to be read into. He hums “I can’t help you” over the toy tones of a drum machine a few moments before a Sarangi takes over. He repeats the panicked line “What’s he laughing for?” as foreign sounds interject. Later, he mutters “The world is made for two, I don’t think that’s true, but hell I’m glad I found you,” through lazily filled silences. These feelings of re-filed personal philosophies and self-assessment permeate slowly, but always strongly.
Snake leaves me feeling insignificant and unsettled in the same way that I have felt when I’ve travelled and returned to social circles that carried on unaffected. It’s also surprisingly good company. When the tape ticks off abruptly at the end of each side, I find the ensuing silence as affecting as anything that has actually been recorded.
It takes the wind out of my sails when I listen to it in the morning and it leaves me restless when I listen to it at night.