Artist Spotlight: The Sound of Animals Fighting

I would like to introduce you to my all-time favourite band, The Sound of Animals Fighting, a little-known supergroup comprised of members from bands of varying genres (hence the band name). An obscure progressive/experimental rock outfit with an ever-changing line-up and just three releases under their belt (five if one includes their live dvd and the remastered re-issue of their first release), The Sound of Animals Fighting may be an odd pick for one’s favourite band, though their unique approach to music completely changed the way I viewed the medium, and it is with the utmost of pleasure that I get to share some of their spine-tingling magic with you today.

The Sound of Animals Fighting’s line-up would incorporate many additional musicians over their brief time together, though the core four members are Rich Balling, Matthew Embree and Chris Tsagakis – musicians from the reggae-infused progressive rock band Rx Bandits – and Anthony Green, vocalist from post-hardcore band Saosin and Circa Survive, the latter of whom play a unique blend of post-hardcore, indie and progressive rock. Other members who came through the revolving door of the band’s line-up throughout their various releases (and very infrequent live shows) included Craig Owens of post-hardcore band Chiodos, Keith Goodwin of indie folk band Good Old War, along with various members from post-hardcore band Finch and indie rock band The Autumns. This eclectic approach to its musicianship also extended to other facets of the band, with the artwork for various releases being designed by members of Atreyu and Sunn O)))), and additional spots on their albums were outsourced to fans on the spot in the recording process; the band occasionally using their MySpace during the production of their albums to post things alongs the lines of “if you can speak Mandarin and are free at 4:00pm today to record a spot on our album, send us a message!” Needless to say, The Sound of Animals Fighting do not operate like a traditional music act. And it definitely shows in their music.

Their first album, Tiger and the Duke (considered by some to be an EP due to its notably short length when one removes the extended interlude tracks, but for the sake of simplification, I’m going to refer to it as an album), was released on February 15, 2005, having gained traction on the internet the previous year when demo versions of the core four tracks were released online. The band members would don animal masks in all promotional images, and animal names (such as “The Skunk,” “The Nightingale,” etc.) on all their album credits, though their true identities became apparent very quickly, largely to Anthony Green’s unmistakably distinct voice. Unlike many bands who don on-stage costumes and personas to retain anonymity in their private lives, The Sound of Animals Fighting did so as a way to create a “blank slate” of sorts for new listeners, hoping their blank aliases would dispel any preconceived notions from their pre-existing projects and let the audience judge their music on its own merit.

Tiger and the Duke began the band’s unique writing process, where songs were supposedly constructed from the ground up, starting with the drums (and while I’m not sure exactly how true this rumour is, I’d certainly buy it, given how commanding and talented Chris Tsagakis is behind a kit). Once the percussion was laid down, the other musicians would come in and build the rest of the song around that, and after the instrumental aspects of a song were complete, the vocalists would be called in to listen and write/record their parts accordingly. Tiger and the Duke is a concept album revolving around an alternate take on Noah’s arc, wherein the ship’s captain is essentially overthrown by the wild animals aboard. Musically, it is undoubtedly the band’s most ferocious work, channeling the intensity and technical precision of Deloused in the Comatorium-era The Mars Volta, with the musicians themselves claiming they wanted it to “sound like the apocalypse.”

Having garnered a small but loyal cult following from Tiger and the Duke, The Sound of Animals Fighting went back to the drawing board for their second release, Lover, the Lord Has Left Us, released on May 2006. Lover, the Lord Has Left us ditches the band’s initial sound, being almost entirely devoid of the instruments typically found in rock music, let alone key aspects of the genre. To an extent, one could refer to it as The Sound of Animals Fighting’s equivalent of Kid A by Radiohead. The emphasis is largely on experimentation (for example, one song – titled “Stockhausen, es ist Ihr Gehirn, das ich suche” – contains percussion comprised solely of kitchen utensils, and another song – “Horses in the Sky” – is an aggressively inscrutable mess of electronica that only comes together in its chorus), and elements of various types of world music are also incorporated accordingly (a song titled “Prayers on Fire,” features Sanskrit vocalisations and a sitar, and the penultimate number, “The Heretic,” is a ballad comprised of rich, flowing string arrangements).

The response from fans and critics alike was exceptionally polarising, and remains as such to this day (I personally hated it the first time I heard it, though with repeated listens, it eventually clawed its way into my heart to become one of my favourite albums). Some admire the album for being such a challenging listen full of boundless ambition, and others dismiss it as a failed experiment. While I’m a huge defender of the album, I’ll concede not every idea works – the album’s closer, “There Can Be No Dispute That Monsters Live Among Us,” is a clever idea in theory (lyrics musing on the definition of music sung without melody over a collection of tuneless sounds barely forming a song), its execution is ultimately unlistenable, and detracts heavily from the track that precedes it, the aforementioned “The Heretic” (featured above), a beautiful and soul-shaking number that may very well be the best thing the band would ever write. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to at least admire them for having the balls to throw all caution to the wind and take such a drastic 180 turn with their music.

Over the remainder of 2006, the band did a series of four live shows in California and Nevada, releasing the last of them on a dvd titled We Must Become the Change We Want to See. It was the first time the band had actually even met as a whole, with many contributions from musicians and vocalists being traded exclusively online, and they had only two weeks to rehearse together and perfect their songs live (a difficult task, given that many tracks on Lover, the Lord has Left Us had to be extensively re-written as they were physically impossible to perform live), and as one can see from the full dvd clip above, the chemistry they share on stage is nothing short of electric. One would think the band had been playing together for years prior, and the immensely positive vibe of the show has made it my absolute favourite out of all the live music dvds I own.

The following year, Tiger and the Duke was re-issued (the original pressing having been out of print for some time by this point), and given a complete makeover in the process. Along with its new cover and a completely new set of electronic interludes between each track, each song was remastered, giving the album a noticeably different sound in the process. I personally prefer the remastered version, as I feel the high production value truly gives each song the “apocalyptic” sound the band was going for, though I completely understand why many prefer the original release for its more “raw” sound. This re-release also contained several new takes on songs from Lover, the Lord Has Left Us, including remixes from Technology, Evol Intent and Portugal. The Man. Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of these alternate versions (I generally dislike the concept of remixes altogether) and have played them probably less than a handful of times altogether, so I don’t have much to add there, though the live version of “Horses in the Sky” certainly makes for an interesting listen.

Shortly after, the band came together for their third and final album, The Ocean and the Sun, and with it came another stylistic reinvention. The Ocean and the Sun largely harkens back to the progressive rock sound of Tiger and the Duke – albeit a much more subdued take on the genre (with a few exceptions, such as the relentlessly potent “The Heraldic Beak of the Manufacturer’s Medallion,” which is quite possibly the most technically impressive thing the band ever put out, and my personal choice for their second-best song), while still retaining the wildly experimental mentality adopted on Lover, the Lord Has Left Us, though to a more accessible and toned down extent. Focusing primarily on nature as a theme and featuring the smallest line-up of the band’s career, The Ocean and the Sun serves as a return to the basics, and a beautiful coda for the band’s career. The Sound of Animals Fighting would later reunite for a series of seven shows in 2014 (finally giving them the opportunity to play songs from The Ocean and the Sun live), though currently have no future plans as a band. Founder Rich Balling had stated even prior to The Ocean and the Sun’s release that the band’s catalogue was always intended to be a trilogy, so the chances of them recording new material are slim, though given that Anthony Green recently reunited with Saosin after over a decade apart and is now putting out a new album with them, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.

So, what exactly makes The Sound of Animals Fighting my favourite band? Well, honestly, it’s difficult to articulate. Music can be a considerably more subjective and intuitive art form than, say, film, television or literature, and the way certain songs, albums and artists resonate with their audience can vary drastically depending solely on the listener’s state of mind and/or current living situation. But one thing I do know for sure is that the band completely changed my perception of the medium, and opened my mind up far more than any other artist I can name. I would have been 18 or 19 when I discovered them, and The Sound of Animals Fighting played an enormous role in transforming me from a narrow-minded teenager into a considerably more broad-minded adult. I’m sure many people here won’t even read this, and those who do may likely walk away saying “it’s not for me,” though I hope those who’ve slogged through this incredibly disjointed write-up check out at least one song and appreciate the beautiful art that has helped shape me as a person (and again, if you’re only going to give one song a listen, I would strongly recommend “The Heretic”). Thus concludes your introduction to my all-time favourite band. Thank you very much for reading!