By Calum Marsh | 18 March 2009
Animal Hospital is the experimental, mostly-instrumental project of Kevin Micka, and Memory is the extraordinary record he’s been working on for three years, now finally available through the consistently-great Barge label. Memory is a stunning and beautiful album, at times recalling the work of TNT (1998)-era Tortoise, while at others American Don (2000), Discreet Music (1975), Street Horrrsing (2008), Ocean Songs (1998), and, at one point, the soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine (2006). This would be the enormous step forward that the stagnant and presumed-dead genre of post-rock has for years failed to take if we could actually pin down what that even means. In terms of sheer aesthetics, Memory stands as an impressive achievement by a talented artist; but considered in light of its overarching thematic conceits, both explicit and implicit, this record speaks volumes.
I’m immediately reminded of this 1968 film by Alain Resnais, Je t’aime je t’aime, in which a young man named Claude attempts suicide after the death of his girlfriend, Catrine. Waking in a hospital feeling hopeless and depressed, Claude willingly submits himself to the experiments of a group of scientists studying time and memory. The scientists have constructed a time machine of sorts and plan to send Claude (along with a small mouse) back to a precise moment in his memory. As you might expect, something goes awry and the plan falls apart—rather than reaching his desired destination and returning to the present after a planned single minute, Claude is sent careening back and forth through the remote memories of his relationship with Catrine. The memories are disconnected, some significant, others totally banal; like the stuff that goes on our heads, it’s a confused and confusing mess.
By which I mean that, intentionally or not, the album addresses the problem of the disconnectedness and disorder of memory by representing and so actualizing personal experience in such a way as to necessitate the listener’s participation in the same process. And it sounds awesome.
In a pre-release interview, Micka tells us that Memory “is a rather cathartic experience [which] represents some intense feelings that I may have had a hard time expressing any other way.” Music-making as a form of exorcising personal demons is certainly nothing new, even in the context of instrumental music, keeping words to an absolute minimum to render artistic intention vague and impressionistic. The instrumental artist must work in broad strokes; in turn, the resulting music is traditionally an expression of intense—and typically recognizable, identifiable—emotions. Memory, as the title suggests, is just as broad, an album simultaneously about a) Micka’s memories, expressed through these seven tracks, b) the listener’s memories, which are implicitly projected upon the record, and c) the nature of memory itself, particularly in terms of how it reacts and interacts with music.
So: whoa. To break this down:
a) Memory is the focused and deliberate expression of not simply broad emotions but of personal experiences, of memory. We go into the album with the little information we have: First and foremost there’s the indicative title, which suggests an overarching theme; beyond that, we’re left with little other than individual song titles, which various early reviews of the record have pointed to in order to discern the nature of the memories upon which each song is based. And so the album’s brief opening track, “Good Times,” comprised of light guitar picking and the distant sound of a broken music box, carries with it the vague suggestion of early childhood and the emotions implicit therein: harmony, wonder, fragility, potential—we take the few signifiers we can hold onto. The song is the first of the album (implying birth), the title (implying fondness), and the music box sounds which comprise the majority of the track (pretty obviously representing the objects of childhood), and we paint a picture from there. Memory is full of these blurry signposts.
b) Memory feels like an intensely personal album. But in the nearly total absence of language, the voice of the author is here subordinated to the experience of the listener. This is music upon which we project our own thoughts and feelings. Later in that same interview quoted earlier, Micka asserts that his goal “is to let the listener project their own meaning into the music.” This, while unmistakably simple, is the central thesis at work here: to evoke not the memories and experiences of its creator but to send each individual listener spiraling through his or her own packed skull.
c) Which, as a whole, works remarkably well. Like time-travelling Claude, Micka can’t pinpoint or express specific memories, and neither can we. It’s all jumbled, confused and confusing. This is further highlighted by Memory‘s oscillation between contrasting and irreconcilable elements. In terms of pacing, the album continues to move back and forth between brief movements and enormous suites. The bulk of the album’s weight is found in three pieces—“His Belly Burst,” “And Ever…,” and “Memory”—each of which clock in at around a quarter of an hour and each of which are separated by two- or three-minute tracks. Like how Claude visits memories both monumental and entirely meaningless without reason or discrimination, Mincka treats the smaller numbers not as merely padding or interludes, but fully-formed and significant songs themselves.
Memory simply cannot sit still. Following the minimal briskness of “Good Times,” longer “His Belly Burst” moves slowly but surely from serenity to anxiety to outright dread as Eno-ish strings are overcome and eventually consumed whole by chugging and growing guitar. “2nd Anniversary” mucks around with empty space disturbed by broad strokes of guitar and reverb before petering off into silence once more. But every expectation about the pace and mood of the album is, now twenty minutes in, subverted and then completely fucked with on the unbelievable “And Ever…,” a song you simply need to hear to believe. And then, continuing the album’s tendency toward consumption and disappearance, the track’s rock ensemble is eventually overwhelmed by a wave of white noise.
Later we’re given the fleeting “Nostalgia,” the version of “How This Will End” that DeVotchKa would have written if they lost their flare for drama and had a better knack for subtlety. This is all to say that Memory is about as varied and downright thrilling an album as you’re likely to find in this still-waking year. Conventions are introduced and subsequently dropped, styles appropriated and then subverted, and the result is a record that is thoroughly surprising and never for a second dull.