Animal Hospital: Memory
Barge Recordings

Barge Recordings follows up last year's memorable outing by The Fun Years with another fine collection, Memory by Animal Hospital (real name Kevin Micka). It's an unusual affair on many levels: by layering multiple sounds—guitar-generated and otherwise—in real-time using a flotilla of effects, amps, and delay units, Micka's a veritable “one man band” in the truest sense of the word; secondly, while the core instrument is a traditional one—guitar—it's looped, layered, and processed and thus takes on the character of a shape-shifting device of limitless colour; and, finally, even the album's song lengths are unusual, with three twelve-minute-plus epics sharing space with four tracks that feel dwarf-like by comparison. An album title such as Memory carries it with a certain weight of experience, and the material's wide-ranging, at times wandering character suggests Micka's traveled far and seen much along the way.

Memory opens with the child-like sounds of a music box and then a delicately-plucked guitar (“Good Times”), intimating that the hour ahead might be equally soothing. Of course one shouldn't put too much faith in first impressions and that's just as true here; in fact, a major part of the album's appeal is just how much it flouts expectations, with each track forcing the listener to re-calibrate his/her impression of the album as it unfolds. Though the second piece's eighteen-minute duration offers a subtle hint of what lies ahead, “His Belly Burst” begins as beatifically as the first, with Jonah Sacks' supplicating cello lines establishing a mournful yet elegiac mood that's eventually reinforced by Micka's electric playing. Despite the presence of drum shadings, the guitar's slow-burning tone verges on Frippertronics when it gradually supplants the cello as the lead voice. From here on, however, the tone changes as the piece continues its inexorable build. A three-chord guitar motif emerges, intensifying the heaviness of the slowly swelling mass with its controlled thrashing sound, until the motif drops out at the twelve-minute mark before just as unexpectedly starting up again to guide the piece to a crushing close.

A stark guitar meditation, “2nd Anniversary,” follows with relatively subdued electric overlays suddenly erupting into jagged stabs, so biting they pierce the eardrums. It's hard not to think of Tortoise when the slamming post-rock drumming and doubled guitar motif kick into gear near the start of “...and ever” but Micka pushes the sound into a heavy, axe-burning zone where the Chicago band rarely treads. Adding to the surprise, Micka's voice suddenly enters the fray with an exuberant chant before stepping aside to avoid being crushed by the instrumental colossus that seethes thereafter. Topping it off, “...and ever” immolates at track's end for a solid two minutes before ceding the spotlight to quieter pieces. “ A Safe Place ” provides a post-storm oasis of calm, while “Nostalgia” is an equally mellow interlude. That bucolic mood carries over into the opening minutes of the closing title track when Sacks's droning cello accompanies Micka's acoustic guitar picking. Similar to the other long-form pieces, “Memory” builds slowly but in this case Micka opts for a mood of ecstatic splendor, with the track's eventual climax followed by an equally affecting denouement. Here and elsewhere, the Animal Hospital sound is at times raw but never so much so that the beauty within gets covered over.

May 2009