Issue #134: Animals by TTNG

October 8, 2018

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Animals by TTNG
Released On October 13, 2008
Released By Big Scary Monsters & Sargent House

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kira Grunenberg

There’s something to be said for experiencing a band, along with what one could argue is its seminal full length work, 10 years after the latter first made its way to the listening public. In an interesting twist of time, TTNG, known back in 2008 as This Town Needs Guns, is a group with which I only recently came to be acquainted, thanks to the age old, go-to get-to-know-you activity of putting on music one likes, to show the other person at hand. Anyone who was the slightest bit familiar with the Oxford group prior to now is liable to at least chuckle at the amount of questions that ensued even just after being told, “So, this band is TTNG, but that isn’t their real name. Well, it is, but it wasn’t always,” and then the wide-eyed follow up questions when the band’s previous moniker audibly came about in the conversation. Those like me, who don’t know TTNG, let me be the first to succinctly tell you that this English math rock band is not about violent music. Nor are the band’s members avidly pro-gun to the point of that being the group’s shtick. In reality, the name was more of a reverse stance statement that was more about referencing “[t]hat ‘eye for an eye’ attitude that so many people have,” according to original lead vocalist, Stuart Smith, as he explained in a 2008 interview with AudioScribber.

Why do people think that violence can be solved with further aggression? I thought it would be nice to highlight the absurdity of it all. Maybe we failed. There are definitely people that don’t ‘get it’, but then that is as a result of people reading the name and not listening to the music. I should think it becomes fairly obvious that our tongues are firmly in cheek once you give the records a spin.

Tongue in cheek is certainly an apt descriptor; from the band’s name to the subsequent series of events that lead to Animals being titled as such (TTNG opted for names of animals during the writing and recording phase of the album, as opposed to generic and often confusing standard referencing with the likes of “Track 1,” “New song 2,” etc.). It’s no exaggeration to say the beginnings of This Town Needs Guns were about conveying more than what one will find just under the surface.

Animals is a multi-wrapped gift starting from its origin story, all the way through to the end of the quirkily titled 15th bonus track, “26 Is Dancier Than 4.” After getting past the origins, what TTNG offer musically on this debut is nothing short of a poised blending of styles, akin to layering a cake with multiple kinds of filling, without causing all the flavors to unpleasantly run together. The (at time of recording) quartet, is most often shorthand referenced as a math rock band, which is completely sensible from the very first moments Tim Collis’ nimble, precision-propelled finger work on the guitar starts up on “Pig” (or on the tour setlist-popular “Chinchilla,” if you’re going by the UK track listing.) Combined with lighter impact, drier toned drumming, and the contrast of Smith’s more flowing, often pleading — but not overtly whiney in a stereotypical way — vocal, and the intricate sonic design of TTNG becomes instantly apparent. The many, fast-moving, frequently shifting, and rhythmically frenetic components of this group playing out all together is at once a thing of impressive beauty and also possibly one of the album’s double-edged swords.

Math rock as a style of writing is, at its most fundamental, a more complicated genre. The very central characteristic of the music steers away from the likes of straightforward, conventional, and predictable, opposite the way more radio-focused genres like dance-pop and pop-rock tend to flock towards such building blocks. Add to this principle, an exceptional guitarist who doesn’t shy away from flying up and down the fingerboard with a delicate but confident playing style and a drummer who switches between complementing this melodic decoration with rhythmic substance of his own, all while remaining the steadfast rudder of the band’s counting mechanisms, and the stunning quality of Animals‘ instrumental complexity can easily turn into a drawbridge that prevents new passers-by from successfully reaching the other side of the album without falling off or deciding to turn back of their own accord out of overwhelmed or confusion-born-boredom. I’m the last person on Earth who will advocate using elitist terms or descriptors to explain why an album may or may not appeal to someone but in this case it’s about objectivity. Things like uncommon, complicated, and especially fast-changing time signatures do not make for a novice listening experience. People often naturally gravitate toward finding the downbeat in music and look to maintain awareness of it through a song’s endpoint. Deliberately writing songs that fly in the face of that inclination means that a casual listen might make wading through the totality of TTNG’s moving parts feel disorienting. Still, saying as much is really more of just a disclaimer.

Speaking from personal experience, yes, it might take a few listens through the feel like one has a full and relaxed sense of everything that’s going on as each animal passes by, but TTNG also aren’t so stuck up in showing off musicality that the album is devoid of more familiar musical practices like catchy lyrics, bits of memorable motifs, and interesting instrumentation to set the band apart from being just the basics of a math rock “starter pack.” Touches like the unaggressive but prominently heard glockenspiel playing in the undercurrent of “Badger” and, my personal favorite, the majestic, billowing, almost orchestral sounding trumpet that is the melodic cornerstone of “Elk,” provide flashes of tonal intrigue that keep TTNG creatively surprising in the math rock genre, which, for the slot of high-expectation-driven debut, is a great thing when a band plans on making more than one record. The brief respite of “Quetzel” might seem too quick at less than 40 seconds, but the entire track being one giant musical phrase set in reverse phase, makes the compact piece hardly a work of quotidian proportions.

Though more music in the form of bonus tracks is usually given welcome embrace by music fans, I almost find the decision to include them or, to at least include them at the end, an unfortunate turn of events. Ending one’s listening session of Animals at “Zebra,” the standard finishing point of the record, feels entirely sensible. The track is subdued, a tad solemn, and beautifully fragile with its minor key music box melody and wistfully regret-baring, retrospective lyrics (“So hold me now / that I am not strong enough to hold myself / I am old enough now to know better than to bare my cross alone”). Smith’s voice is also brought in just a bit closer to what’s around him, as though he’s singing in a well dampened room or small vocal both and given very little in the way of expansive cushioning, thus resulting in a seriously intimate setting. The song really feels like a gentle sendoff which, while that may not be the way everyone likes their debut album purchases to actually close out, makes for a closing that is by all accounts, sonically logical.

TTNG, and Animals especially, has a slightly snarky spirit but when this group made this first musical move back in 2008, what the players were offering wasn’t a work that reflected biting sarcasm or zany, c’est la vie character — neither instrumentally nor lyrically. Animals, at its heart, is a sensitive body of work that somehow manages not to get entirely caught up in its own musical finesse. Yet, the album retains enough of it to not allow Smith’s occasionally downtrodden recitatives to cast the oft-shock inducing This Town Needs Guns, toward the non-combative and darker waters of emo rock.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Math rock that incredibly formulates until revealing a truly staggering emotional masterpiece.

Mathematics carries a lot of connotations. Challenge, academic excellence, nerds, difficulty, complexity, science and arithmetic — all words we might choose to use in the context of math. So it’s hard to know what the intention is when someone refers to a piece of music or an entire genre labeled “math rock”. It’s come up a few times in my life when listening to Tool, Foals, Meshuggah, and MuteMath. None of these bands have much in common but for the fact that they all employ polyrhythms and eschew melodic patterns in favour of meandering, unpredictable dynamics. It can’t really be called a genre as much as it can be called an approach to music. Oxford based TTNG walk a difficult line very successfully on their 2009 album Animals. Somewhere in the grey area between jazz and jam music’s ad hoc song structure, the songs of TTNG emerge as a very well blended musical experience. There isn’t a single thing for the mind to hold on to. There is no hook you’ll be humming in your mind from any of the fifteen songs each named after animals. But despite all the rhetoric you might have read about the beauty of music coming from repetition and patterns, the band introduces you to the idea that songs and indeed entire albums can be seeded simply from moods, ideas, and a deep palette of sounds and feelings. Here, the palette is a almost entire constructed of undistorted electric guitar licks, complicated drum patterns and a general decision about tempo. The vocals tell stories of emotional turmoil which soar and dive like birds in a storm wind. Henry Tremain has a sweetness and innocence which really helps to sell to — especially for fans of Pavement and ’90s indie rock. When he’s not playing, tracks like “Elk” take us somewhere introverted where our souls entertain notes like wind chimes in an emotional turmoil. They play out like the fire of a sparkler shooting off gently and disappearing into quiet darkness as it burns down. It’s hard to imagine the band remembering and reproducing every note they have to play in a live performance but I don’t think it matters. The fact is, you’re not going to remember the verses or the notes anyway. You’re going to remember how it felt.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

This record is Thanksgiving dinner: there’s a whole lot to digest. But the thought that keeps running through my mind is that although Animals is incredibly dense from beginning to end, there’s never a dull moment. I really enjoyed how TTNG achieved such a dynamic record with many different textures throughout. For instance, there’s the brilliant bridge near the end of “Gibbon,” which seems like the end of the tracks, but quickly builds into a fresh new beat to close out the song with a flurry. While most of the album is upbeat, the ballads stand out much more as a result. The subdued trumpet solos of “Elk,” and the interplay between the vibes and strings on “Zebra” really give Animals an emotional push over the finish line. Perhaps the coolest moment for me as a producer is “Quetzel,” a series of chords played in reverse. Of course, playing material in reverse is nothing new, but it just fits so well in the grand scheme of the record. When you step back and look at Animals as a whole, it’s a wild jungle of sounds, textures, tempos, and emotions.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

“Y’all let me know when you’re ready,” said the towheaded young woman, gesturing to the cracked and yellowed plastic covering the grease-stained menu suspended above her orange and brown visor. Surreptitiously glancing up and down at us throughout telling a coworker how she’d have the trailer all to herself that weekend, she seemed perplexed, interrupting herself as we ordered to ask where we were from. “Y’all are just so cute,” she said, leaning over the counter to take in his fitted black jeans, my red lipstick and bleached out tips. “Are y’all from New York or something?” Standing in a Krystal off whatever exit at the corner of Tennessee that touches Alabama and Georgia, we must have looked out of place. Surely it’s age, in addition to her sort of awestruck visage, that made that moment stand out against the 23 years I spent as a kid trying to find someone, anyone, that made sense with who I am. That adolescent journey we all meander through hits again in times like hearing Animals, an album that fits so neatly into what I love about music and who I am that I spent part of this week almost ashamed I didn’t already know the band. Quintessentially mathy, the complex and frenetic time signatures characterize the album, compelling the album forward into a twisty but light pathway. TTNG plunges you right into their current of sound, opening with “Pig,” a plaintive cry to return home. “Baboon” unapologetically starts with what could be the bridge of a less complicated song. A noodling guitar highlights the track, almost distracting from lyrics that are surely driving but will take many more listens to uncover. On other tracks, though, Stuart Smith’s vocals soar with the high rasp of Jeremy Enigk over the complications below, closing the gap between thoughtful arrangement and pure emotion. So much is buried inside each track that listening feels like excavation, but upon every listen I am left again feeling like I’ve found my people, not regretting the time of not-knowing, but looking forward to more discovery.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

You’ve heard of blood harmony, right? That eerie effect you hear when siblings are singing vocal harmonies? (Whether you have or haven’t, I’d recommend highly the episode of Tyler Mahan Coe’s outstanding Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast about the Louvin Brothers. Fascinating stuff.) I’d argue that TTNG makes a compelling case for there being such a thing as blood rhythm. Just as Charlie and Ira Louvin’s vocals sound uncannily connected, Tim Collis’ guitar and brother Chris Collis’ drums seem like they’re being synched up by something more powerful than mere adherence to a metronome. That’s because a number of the tunes on Animals venture into “How the hell did they get that to hang together?” territory. Take the start of the second tune, “Baboon,” which pairs shifting time signatures with guitar notes that flutter around the beat like moths frantically swarming a street light. It pushes right up against the line that separates order and chaos, but something about the passage seems so certain, like if the band did 100 takes in the studio, 100 of them would have worked out just fine. The starts of “Rabbit” and “Chinchilla” have that same vibe. I think I’m so struck by the intros because there’s something magical about conjuring that kind of complexity out of nothing — about staring into the blackness of pre-creation and extracting from it music that’s so taxing. The end of “Badger” is just as compelling. As the pace slows to a stop, you get to study the guitar’s patterned playing with increasing clarity. Alas, it’s not magic. But blood rhythm is pretty darn close.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

Click below to watch the camcorder video for “Panda.”

Thematically exploring the lost feeling one can find even in a genially crowded setting.

I’ve only seen a true night sky once. When I say that, I mean a sky without light pollution — a truly starlit sky, one where you can’t believe how bright stars actually are, or how many there are. This was 2004, my freshman year at ASU. Me and three friends went on a road trip from Tempe to Las Vegas towards the end of the semester. Most of that drive is a desert, just a vast nothingness stretching from the car window to the horizon. (The remake of The Hills Have Eyes was more than a year away, but that was about my mindset for most of the drive.) It was a six hour drive, but when you only get ten hours of daylight, nightfall comes quick. And when it did, suddenly the boundless emptiness became black. It’s the only way such unbroken desolation could get creepier. But then you turn your gaze upward and: stars. So many stars. A perfect glimmering white, whiter than any Hollywood smile. It’s like you’ve never seen color until now. And with it, hope. Maybe it needs to be this dark for it to be this bright. Yin and yang, or whatever. That’s the feeling I get from Animals. Much of the record finds Stuart Smith singing about heartache and broken relationships — “I’ve learned to hate that I’m still stuck on you” and “Your reckless advancements came with no guarantees” are particularly striking lines — and the pain and anxiety and the blackness that come with. But paired with his vocals are the most twinkly of twinkling guitar figures enveloping his voice in a velvet blanket, as if to suggest that while it hurts now, it won’t forever.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

As I was preparing to begin writing this blurb, I opened up the page where I write and as it loaded up, I began listening to the two tracks that stood out most for me upon preliminary listening, “Elk” and “Crocodile,” when something glorious occurred to me, which I hope is true. Even if the band gets back to me and denies it, I will be keeping it as headcanon. It’s called “Elk” because it has horns! When I made this realization (admittedly it was very late at night and I’d been awake all day, which is as close to intoxicated as I get, so it might not hold up to scrutiny), I began to think about what a crocodile and music had in common and the only think I can think of are “scales”, but I don’t think they were playing scales that song, but I’ve been wrong before and I could very well be wrong about this. So that’s the rush I was getting while listening to this album. It’s an excellent album that feels very literary. It’s an album you can keep coming back to. In my case, I can almost guarantee it. I want to solve the mysteries of why each song is called what it’s called.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Believe it or not (don’t believe it, I say this all the time), TTNG is a band name that has always floated around my radar but never quite found their way under it. One thing that separates them from the previous featured OYR artists is that I always thought I knew what TTNG sounded like, and I thought that they were a much heavier band than they actually are. I fully admit that this incorrect assessment stems from the fact that I associate the idea of a town needing guns as something that’s particularly violent. I suppose that’s exactly why the band decided to shorten their name. Anyway, as wrong as I was about what to expect from Animals, I’ve found that it’s a very welcome and relaxing listen after these last few weeks. I mentioned a recent promotion a few weeks ago (and now I’m back!) and how I have an hour commute there and back, but what I didn’t mention is that this promotion also includes a 10 hour shift on my feet in between, and those long hours can be pretty tiring. I’ll get to the point: when I’m taking the train at 2 in the morning and all I want to do is crawl into bed, I appreciate the airiness provided by TTNG on my journey. I was expecting heavy distortion, and the lack of it provides a cleaner way to experience the arpeggiated guitars going back and forth, and, for me at least, it creates a calm atmosphere at a time when it’s said that nothing good ever happens (this marks the second time this year that I’ve referenced How I Met Your Mother when discussing an album), and Animals unintentionally became an album that helped me zone out until I reached my stop. Due to my late night listens, I’m not sure if I could tell you which track is which based on titles alone (except for “Elk,” because it’s the song that reminds me most of a Kinsella brothers project on an album full of songs that remind me of the Kinsella brothers) but I can tell you that I appreciate the knowledge that the titles were originally placeholders to distinguish songs from each other until the band decided to officially use them. It feels more organic in a “go with the flow” kind of way, and it means that the nods to Pink Floyd’s Animals are unintentional, which is funnier to me than if they had done it on porpoise. (That, however, that was intentional.)

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

A technically proficient record that coalesces perfectly with tender emotion.

Catching the fact that TTNG hail from Oxford wasn’t a surprise after listening to this album, which slots neatly into the descriptor “brainy.” That UK academic center is also musically notable as the birthplace of Radiohead, who have no shortage of smarts themselves. While the influence of Thom Yorke & Co. can be felt in some of the soaring vocal lines and intricate arrangements, there’s nothing slavish going on here. Pink Floyd, who arose out of Oxford’s rival Cambridge, might also be getting a nod towards their last great album, also entitled Animals. But, unlike that masterpiece, I’m still not sure if the reference to fauna is metaphorical or some other form of literary technique. Also, while there does seem to be emotional content in the songs, it’s rather abstract and foreign to the high anxiety of Radiohead or Pink Floyd. TTNG seem to like things clean, controlled, virtuosic and, even in their quietest moments, busy. If those be musical virtues to your ears as well, sign up here.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Today was my first time listening to TTNG (or This Town Needs Guns) and with a name like that, I was anticipating something completely different. I thought it would be face melting guitar solos and banshee screams for sure. I braced myself for the impending assault on my ears as I cued up “Chinchilla” and was pleasantly surprised to find something entirely unexpected. The music that flooded my ears was warm, close, and sentimental. I was reminded of bands like Radiohead and The Smiths, but TTNG have a sound all their own that is totally unmatched by their contemporaries. I really appreciate how this band that can make their point without relying on tired vamps and shouting. TTNG delivers a listening experience that is simultaneously relaxing and deeply emotive. Another aspect of this album that I find exceptional is the sheer complexity of the guitar work. Outside of heavier genres, I would normally find myself completely distracted by complex guitar lines, but in the hands of TTNG, it just works. Every element flows together perfectly under Stuart Smith’s gentle crooning. For all the post hardcore fans that are looking for something to relax to and all the indie fans searching for something with just a little more depth, look no further than Animals by TTNG.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

After having one of the busiest summers and an even more eventful September, I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to just relax. Between going to the UK for three weeks and moving into a new place, it’s just been nonstop. I almost always look to music as a way to de-stress, to just zen out, and this album was perfect for that.
It has a chilled out vibe that I really enjoy, and as the fall starts to set in, I find that that’s the music I tend to listen to — something to play in the background when you’re curled up with a book and a cup of tea. The song “Elk” is now added to my rainy day playlist for that exact reason. It has such a great intro, but even when it picks up, it still stays mellow enough. I don’t know why I tend to gravitate towards the instrumental tracks most of the time, but I guess they just stick out more to me. When there are no lyrics, the emotion of the song is left up to your own imagination, and there’s just something about that that I enjoy. A perfect Sunday evening album!

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

A Rubik’s Cube would be a fair comparison here. Both the ubiquitous puzzle and this style of indie rock are mathematically constructed, and require a great deal of scrutiny in order to fully understand. But both can exist and excel beyond that, being used for artistic creation and even joyous exploration. Whether it’s a technical genius masking his skill as magic or a gifted artist creating a detailed and swarming mosaic, the limits of the Rubik’s Cube have far exceeded its meager expectations when it launched back in 1974. I feel the same about math rock, at least in the way TTNG has offered it. TTNG is using the same canvas, or Rubik’s Cube, here that their contemporaries are, but instead of trying to dazzle with speed and dexterity, they aim to exploit it for something much grander and resonant. Through the tortured lyrics and aperitive instrumentation, they’ve created a world that’s familiar despite all of the deviating patterns and modulating rhythms. Of course, it’s not instantaneously familiar — it’s still math rock after all and the extravagant complexity will require some time to acclimate to. But that complexity is also not haphazard or indulgent. TTNG seems dead-set on finding harmony within these patterns, minimizing that which makes them different and highlighting the thin strands that connect them. It’s clear from the beginnings of the record, as the opening track “Pig” unwinds a relaxing array of sounds, before the second track “Baboon” seems to take those notes, throw them into a blender, and unleash a dizzying array of sounds that’s remarkable melodic if not perplexing. Most striking in this music though are the strands of other sounds, as the band moves past the emo and indie foundation of math rock’s origin and brings in other styles, some classic and others more contemporary. Going back to “Baboon,” the R&B groove that supports the song helps the listener weave past the equations in order to find meaning. Elsewhere, the Oxford sound is prevalent, specifically the twee revival that shines through songs like “Panda.” “I’m in love” the song boldly proclaims at the start in a surprising moment of clarity, harmony, and melody, before the band boldly deconstructs it throughout the song into an endearing wave of malaise. It’s no surprise that band capable of byzantine compositions can also portray an elaborate emotional depth, but it is surprising how balanced this record feels with that in mind. Each instrument finds its own sound, unique within each song, and while they may mirror each other at crucial moments, once the moment has passed, they’ve all moved in opposite directions around the sonic space each chord layout and discordant story have constructed. One moment, you’ll find yourself drawn to a ridiculous level of detail and talent, while other times, that talent and detail will swirl together to create an emotional experience. Just like a Rubik’s Cube, Animals can provide wondrous enjoyment through dazzling technique or glorious imagination, with each just as rewarding as the other.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Moss Side Story by Barry Adamson
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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