The Pantheon of prog rock has no shortage of gods deserving praise for their sci-fi lore and guitar solo gymnastics. But deep down in the jungle of the genre lurks a band that chooses to remain dormant for years, emerging every so often to remind us that they’re still not too old to rip our faces off.
On Saturday, The Sound of Animals Fighting returned in triumphant form to the Observatory in Santa Ana, a year after the 10th anniversary of their last album The Ocean and the Sun (2008). Putting aside the masked animal guises that greeted us with their debut EP The Tiger and the Duke in 2005, the supergroup of musicians fronted primarily by Anthony Green donned even more powerful personas as mature, humble shredders bound by their love of getting all savagely esoteric on your ass.
Despite their obvious love of proggy riffs and long-winded song titles, the chaos conjured by TSOAF can’t be lumped in the same category as Asia or Emerson Lake and Palmer. Their caustic screams and crushing distortion ignite a flammable spark reminiscent of their days in young post-punk, experimental and hardcore outfits including Saosin, Chiodos, RX Bandits, Good Old War and Finch to name a few. While the sound defines a specific place and time in the mid-aughts, their songs sound as fresh and limitless today as they did back then.
Taking the stage in all black attire as the intro of Elvis’ “Fools Rush In” swept over the nostalgic crowd of hardcore fans, the band readily reciprocated the energy of the crowd from the opening guitar riffs of “The Heraldic Beak of the Manufacturer’s Medallion” from The Ocean and the Sun. Green’s soaring vocals and boundless energy were on strobe light display backed by guitarist/ vocalist Matt Embree, guitarist Steve Choi and drummer Chris Tsagakis aka “C-Gak” of RX Bandits, bassist Jonathan Hischke, vocalist/ group founder Rich Balling of Pyramids, vocalist Matthew Kelley of The Autumns, and vocalist Keith Goodwin of Good Old War.
With all those cyclonic performers running around on stage, some bodies were bound to collide. Or in the case of Green’s WWE-style moves on Rich Balling, it looked more like clumsy acrobatics that sent both men toppling to the ground. Luckily they both got back up and didn’t break a hip in the process. That stunt combined with some lip-synching Bert and Ernie puppets held up by fans throughout the set let us know tonight would be a little loose and fun–something that most austere experimental rock bands can rarely seem to manage.
After an opening barrage of pounding, angular hardcore and from “I, the Swan” featuring Balling and Green on vocals, and “Blessings Be Yours Mister V “led by Embree’s soulful, echoing vocals, the band dug into their ‘06 sophomore release Lover, the Lord Has Left Us with Matthew Kelley’s supremely chilled out vocals wafting over the crowd in a moment of reprieve from the post-hardcore aural assault. Lover was always one of those effortlessly experimental chapters in the band’s catalog that allowed the imagination to breathe as the songs seeped their way into your brain with low key grooves as it’s main ingredients.
Goodwin’s dreamy, carefree vocals took over on “This Heat.” The crowd chanted along to the words of the refrain “Meet My Phantoms” as the digital waves of synth crashed over the stage spurred by Tsagakis’ thunderous drums that were equally anchoring and imaginative. Meanwhile Choi and Hischke retained the demeanors of underrated shredders, propelling every song forward and providing both the sinewy muscle that allowed the songs and set in general to stop and turn on a dime as the set ran through Acts I, II, III, and IV of Tiger and the Duke, TSOAF’s most volatile and hardcore-influenced release. That’s right around the time the mosh pit really started to open up. Green’s energy drove the crowd as he swung a glowing amber light bulb, commanding it as if he held the heartbeat of the room in his hands while band raged wildly.
By the time the band’s 12 song set came to an end with the title track of The Ocean and the Sun, fans seemed to be transformed back into their even younger adolescent selves, listening to the soft lullaby of Embree and Kelley. Things continued to a perfectly natural resolution with three more encore songs including “The Heretic,” “Stockhausen, es ist Ihr Gehirn, das ich suche” and the slow motion, ghost horse galloping rhythm of “Skullflower”. Green ended the night by appreciating the crowd for being dedicated and patient with their unconventional side show side project supergroup. “Thanks for being part of this weird thing we’ve been doing for so long,” he said. “It’s so incredibly fulfilling, I can’t even put it into words.”
Though the hardest part of seeing TSOAF is knowing you probably won’t get the chance to enjoy them again for at least a few more years, it’s good to know that as long as the various members of the formless band are alive and breathing, the impulse to break away from their current projects to get together and go wild will always be on the horizon.
The Heraldic Beak of the Manufacturer’s Medallion
I, the Swan
Blessings Be Yours Mister V
My Horse Must Lose
Act I: Chasing Suns
Act II: All Is Ash or the Light Shining Through It
Act III: Modulate Back to the Tonic
Act IV: You Don’t Need a Witness
On the Occasion of Wet Snow
The Ocean and the Sun
Stockhausen, es ist Ihr Gehirn, das ich suche