Review: Mario Lalli & The Rubber Snake Charmers ‘Folklore From The Other Desert Cities’

As the last track of the debut album from Mario Lalli & The Rubber Snake Charmers wraps up, frontman Sean Wheeler vamps like the congenial host of a Vegas lounge act with the line ‘It’s been a privilege serving you, thanks so much for having us in your home’.

Prior to this, the band have held the audience in the palm of their hand as they guided them through ‘a shaman’s journey through the desert landscape of imagination’.

Mario Lalli & The Rubber Snake Charmers 'Folklore From The Other Desert Cities' Artwork
Mario Lalli & The Rubber Snake Charmers ‘Folklore From The Other Desert Cities’ Artwork

Beginning life in 2010, …The Rubber Snake Charmers came together, curated by the Godfather of desert rock Mario Lalli to create live, improvised sonic experimentation, produced by a loose lineup currently featuring Lalli, Brant Bjork on guitar, Ryan Güt on drums and the aforementioned Wheeler, along with Lalli, giving the project a unique voice, not to mention previous members have included Bill Stinson, Gary Arce, Tony Tornay and Nick Oliveri to name a few.

The idea was to journey through spontaneous live compositions, these excursions underpinned by the grooving tones of Lilli’s bass and adhering to the flowing, heady psychedelic desert ethic that unites these incredible musicians in spirit as they seek to capture the vibe and imagery of life in the Mojave Desert.

The outing was captured in Gold Coast Australia and there is a strange, magical tension to the performance as the heavy meditation on rhythms, droning riffs and the dual spell-binding narration feels unpredictably beautiful, yet fragile like it could all fall apart descending into chaos at any moment.

This is desert rock royalty having played with each other for decades, possessing a seemingly psychic connection enabling them to create a swirling, complex exploration of sound that manages to produce some of the most soulful and funky, hard-hitting jams that you will hear all year.

Sean Wheeler, who has turned his hand to more than a dozen bands from punk to sleeve rock and performance art, plays ringmaster, like a kind of shamanistic voyeur and commentator as he free forms streams of expanded conciseness in the form of spoken word poetry, soft crooning or impassioned evangelical street preaching.

As the plaintive, creeping sounds of Creosote Breeze emerge, the droning reverb and Eastern sounds feel like the slow vibrations of the earth before the luscious pulsing baseline of Lalli is joined by the jangling guitar and commanding thump of the drums, feeling like the world is waking up, the sun rising over the desert rocks and cacti full of mysticism.

As Lalli begins his low moody croon, it feels like a breath held in anticipation. Then, over the dramatic burn of the guitar and wash of effect pedals, this hypnotic ceremonial ritual builds in a dramatic fashion that is part funk, part jazz. The track intensifies as he intones ‘I’ve been up for ten days’ before Wheeler takes centre stage with tender singing, beat poetry and spoken word delivered commandingly in a Tom Waits-style growl and bellow. Fleeting ideas and images holding you mesmerised as they somehow conjure spiritualism, modern and historical cultural references, part nonsense, part savant.

It is easy to lose yourself in this otherworldly bacchanalia as the band journeys through this half-real, half-imagined desert landscape…

When the band gets the space to let fly and take their moment to the next level, it is effortless, Bjork picking out little squalling lead notes over the dancing low end and frenetic drums that create a feeling like something The Doors could have produced at the height of their powers.

Morphing seamlessly into Swamp Cooler Reality, the vibe is darker and there is a subtle shift in intensity as Wheeler raps and scats over the up-tempo beats, vocally summoning his proclamations that, on the surface, have no connection but weave together in the moment to make the most sense.

It is hard not to solely focus on the vocals alone as it is a masterclass in showmanship, a scenery-chewing performance that, in the hands of another set of musicians, would be too overpowering and distracting, but the band deftly steer the journey to reflect the emotions and in turn, he gives them the space to showcase the rich, intricate interplay between them.

The slower, swampy vibe of Other Desert Cities brings more tales of people and their lives with lyrics like ‘his brother has Playboy centrefolds on the wall, they teach me how to eat spaghetti with a fork’. Real or imagined who can say? But as the music grows in darkness with the retro vibe swirling, the bass and bright guitar notes bounce off each other in sync with the crashing cymbol splashes. Wheeler riffs off lines from the murder ballad In The Pines, popularised by Lead Belly and more recently Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, then as the climax builds, there is a frantic feel like the whole thing is collapsing into chaos.

The final piece, The Devil Waits For Me, calls back to earlier lines from the other tracks, somehow bringing the narrative together and even referencing Oliveri as the band deconstructs, rebuilds and tears down once more this fascinating performance. As they sign off, the lasting feeling is that The Rubber Snake Charmers are a unique experience that has similarities to The Enablers or Jim Morrison’s American Prayer album where the music and the words mesh symbiotically to articulate the mood.

I’ve been obsessed with Folklore From The Other Desert Cities since it arrived in my inbox and, as ever with Heavy Psych Sounds, there is a plethora of beautiful limited vinyl with large, almost Warhol-like artwork to tempt your wallet as well as the CD and download offerings.

The music however is rightly the star here and this album is made for headphones or full-volume immersion when there are no distractions, and you can drift away from the grind of whatever you are doing in your day. It is easy to lose yourself in this otherworldly bacchanalia as the band journeys through this half-real, half-imagined desert landscape and no stretch of that imagination can proclaim this is one of my favourite releases of 2024 so far.

Label: Heavy Psych Sounds
Band Links: Facebook | Spotify | Instagram

Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden