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Animal Hospital
Shelf Life Brian Coney , November 3rd, 2023 10:54

One of post-rock's most exploratory guitarists sets out to make a straight-up rock record with luminous results, finds Brian Coney

At its most memorable, Kevin Micka’s output has felt defiantly explorative. Having emerged as the drummer of Boston post-rock trio The Common Cold around the new millennium, his thickety, guitar-led maximalism as Animal Hospital has made space for field recordings, boundary-buckling soundworlds and The Box, a 19" x 10" x 6" self-made chassis containing a contact mic, electronics and percussive switches. It’s often felt like turning the genre turned inside out but on Shelf Life, he sets out to reclaim simply making a rock record – no ‘post-’ required.

Micka actually going on the record to say “I would start with calling it a rock record” might seem like a trivial distinction but it checks out on ‘Fuselage’. Much like how Ian Williams has spent 30 years taking the blues out of guitar music in favour of other colours – first as a member of Storm & Stress and Don Caballero, and more recently Battles – Micka similarly flips the script while keeping it firmly within the rock arena. Teaming up with Ernie Kim and Frank Aveni, it’s an insistent, metronomic opener that hits like Deerhoof jamming Strawberry Jam-era Animal Collective. Paired with wordless refrains, it’s fairly linear light shot through the broad prism of Micka’s musical mind.

Having previously worked as guitar tech for Hoboken indie rock heroes Yo La Tengo for a decade, Micka has recently nodded to an epiphany in those days that has fed into his own sometimes seemingly limitless creations: “Working with Yo La Tengo, watching their range of compositions over the years or just through a single setlist, I started thinking that Animal Hospital didn’t have to be just one thing.”

On Shelf Life, this flash of insight comes into sharp focus on two peaks midway through its 30-odd minute runtime. The gently unfurling ‘Awful Beast’ is pared back from the outset. Folding a soft dance of electronics, consoles and delay units to create plinking arpeggios and softly pneumatic looped phrases, it perfectly accompanies ‘His Amazing Friends’. Also featuring Kim and Aveni, it’s an outright high-point filtering the tightly ecstatic paeans of Irish instrumental bands And So I Watch You From Afar and Adebisi Shank. In much less inspired hands, it might sound like a Rorschachian racket but with Micka in luminous form, it’s music that lunges forward without trying to outpace the qualities that keep it within the goalposts of being curveballing guitar music at its root.

It may not take a million years but by the time closer ‘As Always’ slides into view, Micka’s statement of belief juts in the frontal cortex. A single, improvised take while testing out a newly repaired amp captured on a field recording device, it’s a gently lulling coda that strips the effects away to reveal an artist whose finespun musicianship has always steered the ship. It seals a perfectly-pitched primer to his universe and a nudge to recall that rock could not be any less of a dirty word.