Animal Suit Driveby: 110 Miles

Imposter costume

Animal Suit Driveby only look like an ordinary band

Have you heard? They have the Internet on computers now! Sorry for the tired Simpsons reference, but it so nicely captures what seems to keep happening with everybody’s favorite way to waste time at work. Just when it seems like the Internet isn’t going to be the great equalizer that will allow talent to disperse itself regardless of the great arbiters of taste, another distribution medium comes along and recharges my hopes that the good old World Wide Web just might allow great music to find its way to just about everybody who wants it, whether they know it or not.

It should come as no surprise that the bands taking advantage of every newest thing are young, hungry, talented, and playing music that’s new and original, and therefore very, very scary for those sorts of people who run radio stations and labels and have to worry about what Wal-Mart and Circuit City want to put out on their shelves for the masses to consume in mass quantities. Take the case of Animal Suit Driveby, who, hailing as they do from the sprawling metropolis of Hampden (though they’re now living down south, and by that I mean Massachusetts), the band didn’t exactly have a huge base from which to draw local fans. So they got themselves a Web site, of course — der, everybody does that.

But it’s not enough to have a site with a bio and show listings and some mp3s anymore. Bands have to utilize other Web sites to attract fans: www.purevolume.com, for instance, where, despite competition from 95,000 other bands (yep, 95,000), Animal Suit Driveby currently find themselves as one of just 17 featured bands on the home page. And, at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning [in February of 2005; currently, a search on PureVolume for Animal Suit Driveby produces zero results], there were 7500 or so people online checking out the site, all of them surely at least glancing at their album cover. Apparently, people are taking the bait. By last count, more than 18,000 people had chosen to play one of the five songs available for listen, with about a third of those people choosing to download “Bottomfeeder” to have for their very own.

Fans can also choose to “spread the virus,” clicking on a fan page that allows them to download posters for ASD’s upcoming EP-release show, or put Animal Suit in their email signature, or tell people about Animal Suit’s page on myspace.com, where people who become their “friends” can get immediate updates on show information, download information, just about any friggin’ information the band wants to disseminate. And this isn’t spam. This is stuff fans actually want. This is real-deal, exciting stuff, driven by the new affordability and availability of high-speed computers (does that sound archaic?) and broadband connections. With these Internet options, the band’s fanbase becomes an instant community, taking the concept of the fan club, where kids used to get a signed eight-by-10 glossy every once in a while, to an entirely different level of intimacy.

It’s intimacy these fans are clearly desperate for, if they can in any way identify with ASD’s lyrics and music. On their 110 Miles EP, produced by Jon Wyman (who maybe I wouldn’t talk about so much if someone else in town could hold his jock, production-wise), and set for release this coming Tuesday, Animal Suit paint portraits of the disaffected and the disturbed. Which makes the album’s opening, about 15 bars of acoustic guitar and maybe a cello, so sweet. The suits these animals wear have hard shells, for sure, but cover a soft underbelly.

That first tune, Subject A, is the standard radio rock organization of guitars idling like an engine, popping like there’s maybe a cylinder somewhere that needs work, before roaring to life with the chorus [above, it’s performed by The Killing Moon, a band that grew out of Animal Suit, but it’s the same song]. Here, though, the chorus really hums with Chris Michaud’s baritone sax and Dan Lafayette’s trombone, a descending riff that supports lead singer Ryan Hannan’s exhortation that “we’re all just shades of grey.” The subject A, in particular, “wants to throw it all away/ He’s sick of all the pain, want to turn it into rage.”

Whatever it is that Hannan uses for fuel, his choruses are certainly pyrotechnic. In “Sugar Pills,” he’s spectacular, pulling the listener along into a manic frenzy without actually speeding anything up, really above average in delivery and timing, holding onto a final “yeah” to make you hold your breath. What’s beautiful is that he contrasts these muscular choruses with a conversational verse structure that should remind of indie soul singers like Living Colour’s Corey Glover, or TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, his band supporting him with alternate rhythms like you might find on a Fishbone or Police album (pre-Synchronicity).

But what’s driving this disaffection? Per usual, it’s a disappointment with the very people who are telling kids what to do all the time. “Bottomfeeder” gets at this notion’s core. Opening with a Toad the Wet Sprocket guitar tone and featuring a little bit of that heavy white-boy reggae thing, but in a way I haven’t really heard before, Hannan wonders: “Aren’t you supposed to be the bigger one?/ My dagger alone facing your big black gun/ Ease the hammer back real slow/ Press the barrel to my throat and say,/ ‘There was a time there for poking fun/ Seems it has turned into obsession/ It’s been overdone’/ Look what I’ve become/ Parasitic leech, bottom feeder.”

It’s a distrust of flawed judgment, the same kind of judgment that probably tells young bands they have to get signed, get a label, get management. But in that game, as Hannan notes in the chorus, “deception’s always been your best friend.”

The hope comes in “A Book of Love Stories,” featuring little guitar trills that break down at the beginning, a reminder of prog rock — Yes, especially. The verse is engaging immediately, Hannan’s older-than-his-years voice accompanied by the sax with a mournful harmony that’s much more thoughtful than simply mimicking his melody. “Your skin is a canvas for my heart to paint,” Hannan sings, “so let go/ And if we’re careful not to wait, we’ll hear nothing and see everything we all believe in each other’s eyes/ We can share one sensation.”

Wasn’t that the promise rock and roll made to us, that we could all tap into something bigger? Well, hey, they’ve got rock and roll on computers now.

Sparks the Rescue: Hey Mr. Allure

To the Rescue

A new EP Sparks renewed interest

Young bands come and go. As Reindeer Records’ 22nd annual Reindeer Rock-Off gets set to kick off this Sunday [May, 2006], it’s important to remember that for every Jeremiah Freed or Howie Day, who make it from the finals to the major labels, there are hundreds who melt into obscurity, as high-school bands are wont to do. Still, finalists Gloria Red, Norwood, Passing Lane, Rocksmythe, and the Shams have more reason than ever to be reasonably hopeful that hard work and good songs will pay off with at least a dedicated and loyal fanbase (thanks to the power of Internet marketing), if not fame and outrageous fortune.

I am reminded of this by a great new EP by Sparks the Rescue, a band I saw as part of my judging duties at Reindeer Rock-Off 20, back when they were the three-piece band Pozer. They had matching unis, a cool banner behind them, and the bassist jumped off the top of his stack and nearly killed himself. I liked them quite a bit. But their songs were a bit lackluster, they couldn’t generate quite the sound they needed, and the vocals were a bit weak, so I didn’t put them first (nor, however, did I put in for Sammie Francis, the eventual first-female, first-solo-artist winner – I was a Stillview man).

Luckily, Pozer have addressed all of these perceived deficiencies in fine fashion in building Sparks the Rescue, a leader of Maine’s all-ages scene. Original members Toby McCallister (guitar and vocals), Ben Briggs (bass), and Nate Spencer (drums) first added vocalist/guitarist Pat O’Connell and Marty McMorrow (keys/other stuff) to fill out their sound and upgrade their vocals a bit. This worked pretty well. Their debut self-released disc (we’ll call it a full-length at seven songs), Stumbling Skyward, was an unexpected hit, selling well for the past year-plus on the local front and helping them to build a loyal following.

Since then, however, the lead vocals of Pat O’Connell and Toby McCallister have been augmented (not quite replaced) by the addition of Alex Roy, who’s simply a more polished and confident frontman. Plus, that’s all he’s got to do, leaving the guitarists to rip – especially on stage, where Sparks are known for an impressive performance, full of flailing about that’s just short of self-mutilation. The result is personified by Hey, Mr. Allure, a three-song statement that should propel the band into the ranks of Maine’s best-known bands.

Not that they’re unknown. Not by any means.

Between Myspace and PureVolume the band have more than 100,000 song listens under their belt, which isn’t exactly the same as going platinum, but is pretty impressive nonetheless and suggests success as the band embark on an east coast tour later this month that puts them in Virginia Beach, Nashville, Roseville (Michigan), Elizabethtown (Kentucky), and Glen Cove (New York), among other places, with shows likely to be added along the way. Like Killing Moon (nee Animal Suit Drive-by), among other local young bands, Sparks have utilized the ’Net’s immense power for disseminating information, paired it with good songwriting, energy, and a willingness to develop relationships with their fans, and turned it into a tangible musical career.

Two of Mr. Allure’s tracks, “Nurse! Nurse! (I’m Losing My Patience)” and “The Scene: Your Bedroom,” are featured even now on the band’s Myspace page, so purchase of the limited-run disc is as much show of support as anything. But for those who like to hear great music in full CD quality, it’s probably worth the buy even if you’ve heard the tracks five times a day for the last few months.

First of all, the band have this time enlisted the talents of Jonathan Wyman (Skyward was recorded by the able Terry Palmer at Dizzyland), and he’s employed his close-mic’ing techniques and big-sound sensibilities to create a much fuller sound, more Foo Fighters, more immediate. “Nurse! Nurse!,” too, shows off frontman Roy’s wonderfully crisp and reedy tenor, full of irony and sneer. It’s contrasted here with deranged screaming to good effect. It’s something the band feature often, and gets them past rock and roll and into a realm of emo and hardcore. On Skyward they possibly over-utilized the delivery technique, pairing it with the lead-singing like a form of harmony on many of the tracks, stripping some of the impact.

Also, the lyrics are easier to discern here, and they can be pretty good: “Oh, can we call the hospital?/ I’ve been sleeping with the nurses/ For medication.”

Later, Sparks kick off “Saco Boys Have No Class” with an old-school “let’s go” and then reach back again for the whininess that made the early Cure my high-school girlfriend’s favorite band. They employ the screaming again sparingly here, paired with some sour notes in the bridge to emphasize the pit of despair we’re meant to sympathize with. Also, they pair it with the lead vocals in the final reprise of the chorus, which is fairly stellar, but instead of harmonizing, the scream sings a different part with different lyrics entirely.

Add that kind of creativity to a song like “The Scene,” which features five of the six band members with vocal parts, and the band’s evolution is pretty evident. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be sharing 21+ stages with bands like Lost on Liftoff any time now. Which would be appropriate. Liftoff frontman Walt Craven’s old band, Goud’s Thumb, was once Illegal Jam, which, of course, performed in Reindeer Rock-Off 2, way back in 1984.

Some young bands just don’t go away.