“I would start with calling it a rock record,” says Kevin Micka of his latest project under the moniker Animal Hospital. Nobody would disagree with that. Keyboards and samples were more of the focus on previous albums, like Fatigue (2020) and Memory (20009), but this time around, Micka seems to take a more aggressive, guitar-heavy swagger on Shelf Life, his first full-length album since 2020.
The opening track, “Fuselage”, bears that out. Opening with the thumping of toms, distorted electronics, acoustic guitar fingerpicking, and wordless crooning, there’s plenty for the listener to grab onto, but it packs a more powerful punch than the album’s predecessors. The staccato rhythmic vibe that runs through the track allows it to build in intensity without falling off the rails, even as the song explodes in a brief coda of bluesy, dirty guitar riffs. Undercutting the somewhat danceable feel of the song with rock licks and heavy percussion makes “Fuselage” sound like DJ Shadow on a Led Zeppelin bender.
The mechanical tilt of “Awful Beast” employs an invention of Micka’s that he calls “The Box”, a self-made chassis containing a contact mic, electronics, and percussive switches. The song gives the album a more industrial feel, and as it slowly unfolds with more layers of electronics, it never seems to lose its way or reach a point where it just flails incoherently. Micka’s intense focus on the feel of each particular track makes Shelf Life a deeply enjoyable listen, perhaps never more so than on the epic centerpiece, “His Amazing Friends”.
Clocking in at 16 minutes and change, Micka takes advantage of the sheer enormity of the track by allowing the many segments to unfold leisurely as the listener drinks in each passage, combining the best elements of prog- and post-rock. Beginning with what sounds like a droning harmonium, Micka then adds a wordless chorus and jarring, stuttering synth lines and fierce, militaristic snare drum lines until the tension becomes overwhelming and everything crashes into a peaceful sea of low-key, atonal synth squalls. Here, Micka is the master of smartly using instruments and passages as building blocks to create a mighty tower of song.
In an odd but utterly charming bit of musical anachronism, Micka follows up the epic “His Amazing Friends” with a peaceful electric guitar hymn, “As Always”, sounding almost as if it was airlifted in from a completely different album (Micka, who was once a guitar tech for Yo La Tengo, is an impressive guitarist). Shelf Life shows us that Kevin Micka is highly skilled at creating a variety of moods but also doing so in an eclectic and seemingly natural way. The album works as compelling, brilliant post-rock but also an exercise in how to effectively break all the rules.