Review Summary: The Sound Of Animals Fighting reinvent their sound once again, and come out with an album that is, thankfully, less pretentious than Lover, The Lord Has Left Us...though not by much.
When Tiger & The Duke was released way back in 2005, nobody was quite sure what to think of TSOAF. Some praised the album for its wildly creative concept and undeniably inventive instrumentation and approach to the recording process. Others claimed that they were merely ripping off The Mars Volta every chance they could, and still others called the band a pretentious mess. The band's second effort, Lover, The Lord Has Left Us, was definitely not an album for the masses, as it blended influences from alternative music, hip-hop, progressive, post hardcore, techno/electronica, eastern music, and the list goes on and on and on. The album was so abrasive at points, it almost seemed as if the band was defying you to even attempt to listen to what was going on. So here we are at the band's third full length, The Ocean And The Sun. What's different? Is it more epic? Are the sanskrit voices gone? Do they still have the awful interludes and noise tracks? All we be made known in good time.
Out of the constantly shifting, and rather large, lineup the band has had in the past (it was up to somewhere around nine on Lover I believe) the band has been whittled down to its core members. For those who are unfamiliar with TSOAF, the core members are Anthony Green on vocal duties, with Matt Embree on guitar, Chris Tsagakis on drums, and Rich Balling on additional vocals (I honestly have no clue who plays the bass, and it has been a different person for every album and live performance since the band's inception). So what is the sound of the new album you ask? Well, picture Tiger & The Duke, only slightly more chilled out, and then add the electronic and techno aspects of Lover... along with the sanskrit voices that seemingly come out of nowhere. For those of you who are completely new to TSOAF, describing the overall sound of the band is somewhat tricky. On this album specifically, it goes a little something like this. You take the oddball progressive elements from bands such as The Mars Volta, add a little bit of spazziness a' la The Fall Of Troy, and then add some slightly post rock elements for texture and a dreamy quality. (Don't let the mention of post rock turn you off, as there are no expansive 15 minute sections of almost nothing going on, its found more in the atmosphere in places than anything else)
While at first glance it seems that the band has gone back to its roots on this album, don't let the surface appearance fool you. Beneath the smooth and proggy exterior there are even more interesting things to be found here. Just when you think you've got the sound figured out you get hit with something like, say, a saxophone solo (Cellophane), or a frantic blues scale based solo that explodes out of an upbeat jazzy section (also Cellphone). Basically, they use the overall mellow sound of the album to make the progressive elements really stand out, and it makes those elements much more exciting. The instrumental aspects of the music are just as impressive as ever, and the band actually seems to have improved instrumentally.
For fans that were offput by the guitars taking a backseat on Lover, don't worry, the guitars are back in full force. The guitar parts never get repetitive, and it even seems as though Embree never even uses the same scale more than twice on the whole album. The bass gets its own spotlight every now and then, like the intro to The Heraldic Beak Of The Manufacturer's Medallion, which is one of the highlight tracks on the album. The drumming is equally as impressive, though sadly it will probably go unnoticed by most. Tsagakis comes up with some wonderfully inventive beats and fills, and I especially love the way he uses the hi-hat in some of the tracks, notably The Heraldic Beak...
The vocal performances by all of the members are really top notch, though there are one or two parts that could have benefited from Anthony's screaming instead of singing. Green, Embree, and Balling's voices are all strikingly different, and the band really uses this to its advantage. Green obviously takes the helm during the frantic fast paced sections of the album, while Embree and Balling take over during the slower and more relaxed sections, and it works sublimely. Even the sanskrit vocals, which were terribly grating and annoying previously, are used in an effective manner here. There really are no vocal highlights, as all the performances here are great, but I The Swan does stick out just above the rest. I The Swan finds the band using all three vocalists throughout the song and the way the voices contrast with the varying moods and tempos works very well.
All of the proper songs on here are nearly perfect, with the exception of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is, at its core, an odd synthpop song with a bunch of random samples and female vocals. It kind of feels like the band took what was supposed to be a short interlude and extended it into a seven minute song. About three and a half minutes in, the actual instruments join in with some wonderful guitar and drum work, but by that point almost all interest has been lost, and even then it doesn't keep your attention for long before lulling back into the series of noises and female voices. The eastern aspects the band showed on the previous release are also found here, though in smaller doses and it actually benefits the sound. The intro to Blessings Be Yours Mister V opens with a pseudo heavy riff which then segues into a middle eastern flute section before shifting back to the pseudo heaviness. The most interesting aspect of the song is the way it maintains the swaying feel of the flute section throughout the entire song without growing boring.
So if nearly all the songs are perfect, then why is this album merely a 4? Unfortunately, the band is still holding on to the rather annoying use of odd noise and ambient tracks for interludes, and this sadly makes up four of the albums songs. Chinese New Year is really the only interlude that's remotely interesting, but its still an interlude and it interrupts the flow of the album rather violently. Also, the sanskrit spoken word pieces that so many found pretentious and stupid rear their ugly head a few times throughout the span of the album, but they usually keep to the background and rarely become overbearing.
If you can put up with the mild pretentiousness found on the album, then its really a wonderful listen. Nearly all of the tracks are absolutely perfect, moving back and forth between epic, dreamy, aggressive, abrasive, and, dare I say it, trippy, almost seamlessly. Sadly, the flow of the album is constantly interrupted by the grating interlude tracks, and Uzbekistan really sticks out like a sore thumb. These tracks are, however, entirely skipable and shouldn't really bring down the album much, unless you are one of those people that needs to listen to an album in its entirety. In summation, if you are a fan of tastefully written progressive music (and Anthony Green's voice), and can put up with a little pretentiousness, you will more than likely love this album.