Review: Sneaks – ‘Highway Hypnosis’ (Merge Records)

Eva Moolchan’s musical career until now as Sneaks would feel positively hyperactive if it wasn’t bound by her droll vocal inflections; feel frenetic if it didn’t so often trade in trudging basslines. Her past two releases have been characterised by their brevity as much as their breadth of influences, walking a line between the chugging grunginess typical of bands from the Pacific Northwest (though she’s from D.C. rather than Washington state) and the dancefloor deconstruction found in contemporaries like FKA twigs and Eartheater. That middleground is indicative of Moolchan’s voracious musical appetite.

Her new record, Highway Hypnosis, sees Moolchan moving even further away from the jerky guitar rhythms that were already being occluded on 2017’s It’s a Myth. This manifests as a focus on skittering 808 hi-hats, synth stabs cribbed straight from ‘90s hardcore and a tendency towards vocal trickery. Lead single ‘Beliefs’ heralded this rebirth with its breathy refrain ‘Remove your beliefs and start again / Cos all I wanna do is start again’. The ensuing record might not be a total reset, but Highway Hypnosis certainly feels like a slight course correction.

What remains of Moolchan’s earlier adherence to punk methodology is the briskness of each track’s runtime, and her willingness to fire out ideas in quick succession. This works as a benefit twice over. If a song falls flat, as on the questionably distorted dub of ‘Addis’, then thankfully it’s out of sight in barely over a minute, and what was a potential stall instead becomes a brief digression (even as it’s a misguided one). Meanwhile, album standouts ‘The Way it Goes’ and ‘Cinnamon’ leave an infectious impression of freewheeling evolution; a sense that Moolchan can and will be whatever takes her fancy in the moment.

That’s not to say that this ethos isn’t without it’s drawbacks, partially because Moolchan has been less fastidious on the cutting room floor this time around. Where both of her previous full lengths clocked in well under 20 minutes, this one runs right up to 30, causing the charms of such a divergent project to wear a little thin. Relatively speaking it’s still a madcap rush, with the album’s second half barely coming up for air, but it just doesn’t quite cohere, largely due to a muddled mid-album sag wherein tracks like ‘Saiditzoneza’ loop with little purpose.

Binding this all then, is Moolchan’s remarkably amorphous vocal talents. Given that her calling card is a phlegmatic delivery, she applies it in a surprisingly versatile manner, all the while remaining recognisably Sneaks. On ‘Ecstasy’ she emulates the dainty sing-song melodies of subservisive pop acts like Charli XCX, both in her lead vocal and her even airier backing harmonies, whilst on ‘And We’re Off’ she morphs into the sombre drawl associated with the riot grrrl movement. Disaffection has never sounded so enigmatic.

Taken as a whole then, Highway Hypnosis ends up feeling consciously precocious, flexing in numerous different directions for the hell of it as much as a means of artistic expression. It’s a repeatedly arresting work that simultaneously feels like a testing ground, acting as a promising sign of things to come rather than a unified project in and of itself.

Highway Hypnosis is out now on Merge Records.

Buy it here.

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