The Sound of Animals Fighting's The Ocean and the Sun provides an interesting progression for the supergroup collective. The lineup has been considerably stripped down: this is merely current and former members of Rx Bandits (Matt Embree, Chris Tsagakis and Rich Balling) alongside Anthony Green and Matthew Kelly of the Autumns.
The proof of having such a minimal assemblage this time around is right in the music. Though SOAF certainly continue to defy easy categorization, The Ocean and the Sun is easily their most accessible effort to date. Though sometimes missing the energy of Tiger & the Duke and the wild experimental bend of Lover, The Lord Has Left Us…, they truly sound like a band on Ocean and not just a potluck side project.
The title track offers glimmering hints of the wild guitar theatrics put on by Embree in the past, with spacey, Santana-esque riffs materializing in the background halfway through. But its effectiveness really lies in the tension and restraint exhibited by the band. It's a tactic employed throughout the next few tracks, including "I, The Swan," where Green and another vocalist (Balling?) trade strained cackles of the title lyric. There's a very likeable, lazy quality to this section of the album, and it actually bears vague similarities to Pavement.
In "Another Leather Lung," Green puts on a perfectly melancholic act over relaxed, deliberately winding chords. Singing on a reserved, lower plain somewhat resembling some of his solo work, Green gives stunted but acutely pained thoughts: "Our friends became when there's room for their name. / This is not as strong as you thought. / In a series of calls, I'm so lucky to be a part of. / They didn't never be the same again." The song suddenly shifts into the spastic, scream-oriented sound of the band's early material to close it; the turn is a little jarring, but it brings a jolt of energy to things.
Besides Green providing one of the more dynamic and wide-ranging performances of his staggering discography, the band themselves dabble in various styles to strong effect. "Cellophane" melds jazz technicality (and a bluesy horn solo) with the staccato riff-rock of the Bandits' later material -- a hybrid that makes for a superb lead-in to "The Heraldic Beak of the Manufacturer's Medallion." "Chinese New Year" is a bizarre interlude, featuring just a steady drumbeat over children's chanting -- like U2's "Seconds."
Granted, there's a bit of a stumble to the finish line, with iffy experiments taking precedent. The questionably lengthy "Uzbekistan" applies stilted, shrill electronics that thankfully recede soon enough, but the song then introduces alien-like chants that pick up speed as the track goes on; it's a seven-minute movement that requires patience to get through and little return upon concluding. "Blessings Be Yours Mister V" sounds like a lo-fi version of a drawn out Bandits climax at first before delving into some guitar jamming and vocal sauntering. "Ahab" is a minute of swirling static filler, but at least the album closes interestingly enough; the jumpy "On the Occasion of Wet Snow" is introduced by Ef-esque post-rock accompanied by a female guest vocalist, offers a bridge that sounds like Beck dropped by and eventually decides to end with a clustered jam.
Overall, The Ocean and the Sun should be a markedly refreshing listen for anyone who was put off by the questionable world music ambitions of Lover, The Lord Has Left Us…. More often than not, it's rigid and focused, composed with sporadic moments of gripping songwriting and a newfound restraint that clearly does them well.
Another Leather Lung
Blessings Be Yours Mister V