Nearly every major artist claimed by the Western canon of popular music has at some point dramatically rebranded themselves. To maintain popularity over a long career, musicians are forced every so often to creatively redirect themselves in some unexpected way, to abandon a complacent audience and a cozy reputation in the pursuit of new ground to break. Some do it begrudgingly, others enthusiastically, but it happens almost compulsively; storied veterans embrace contemporary styles in dogged attempts for relevance while young stars break into old sonic territory in the quest for long-term legitimacy, and even the most dynamic artists in the world test themselves in wholly unfamiliar genres just to see if they can. Whether as the result of some focus-tested commercial marketing strategy or the desire for the mythical, abstract concept of artistic fulfillment, artists can only remain attractive if they are remade over time.
Yet some musicians use the call of change as an opportunity to be made unattractive, to remove themselves from fashionability, to send the message that they refuse to be contained by the expectations of loyal but frustratingly rigid fan bases uninterested in seeing them as anything but romantic fantasies embodying whatever idealized perceptions can be projected onto them. We think of Lou Reed’s infamous, seemingly unlistenable mélange of guitar feedback and modulated noise Metal Machine Music (1975) or Bob Dylan’s equally notorious collection of awkward cover songs, random live cuts, and haphazard originals Self-Portrait (1970), two challengingly uncharacteristic records aimed at provoking audiences who for too long suffocated their idols in order to protect their seemingly fragile, porcelain identities from the blemishes of potential change. These are artists who aren’t above directly confronting and antagonizing the perceptions of their fan base, aggressively dismantling whatever unauthorized public image has been erected in their place, and subverting their own creative past with hostile determination. Such artists are rare.
In the electronic music community, only one of the most divisive artists present during the formative years of the genre can lay claim to being in Reed and Dylan’s company in this regard: Moby.
Like Metal Machine Music and Self-Portrait, Moby’s all-but-ignored 1996 album Animal Rights was a shocking left turn away from his familiar approach that, at best, confused fans and critics upon release and, at worst, utterly alienated them. The album was a departure from the artist’s dance music roots into the nostalgic (yet, thanks to grunge, still contemporarily relevant) embrace of hardcore punk, heavy metal, and alternative rock that, more than act as a bridge over the gap between the rock and electronic communities, seemed to actively shun both of them.
In the spirit of Reed and Dylan’s epochal stunts and the subversive agit-pop of the post-punk Moby loved as a child, Animal Rights was conceived as a reimagining of Moby as an anti-establishment, rave-rock hybrid artist without regard for the feelings of an insular dance music community that had already been turning against him and his efforts to take electronic mainstream. Of course, three years later Moby would return to the public’s favor with an album that would become a major entry point to electronic music culture for the rest of America, the ubiquitous Play (1999), but it’s important to recognize the significance of the fact that the album’s predecessor was a blistering kiss off to both the musical mainstream and those on the fringes of pop culture that not only permanently readjusted Moby’s place in the social order, but also set the stage — thematically and, in a roundabout way, stylistically — for what would be his eventual artistic ascent.
It was abundantly clear by 1996 that Moby regarded electronic purists with the same dismissive attitude and skepticism as the long out-of-date rockists who resented the burgeoning era of digital music that was already applying its heavy influence on the more conservative alternative rock space.
Throughout the early ‘90s in the US, the electronic community had failed to find its commercial breakthrough. Acts like the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, and the Prodigy who were just beginning to dominate overseas barely made a dent on American sales charts and radio, and even homegrown up-and-comers like Moby struggled to connect with anyone outside the isolated subculture.
Part of this, of course, was due to mainstream reluctance to accept electronic music into widespread legitimacy, but the techno buffs of the early ‘90s were, in their own way, regressive, in that they were inherently mistrustful of any and all outside influence, especially as the movement began to grow beyond its isolated framework and draw mainstream attention, however little. Moby, as a rapidly rising artist within the community, quickly became a figure who represented the broader aspirations of electronic dance music after a string of reasonably high-charting (again, mostly in the UK) and well-received singles and pop remixes — most notably 1991’s Twin Peaks-quoting “Go”, a minor breakout hit and only his second official single. As a subculture shaped by underground movements and radical, antiestablishment acts — with foundations in the LGBT and black communities and the working class experience, illegal urban raves as primary gatherings, etc. — its ascent into commercial favor was met with great apprehension from its fiercely loyal base, so Moby, as a beneficiary of this potential breakthrough, became an idol symbolic of the genre’s early “selling-out” period.
With this already boiling dangerously under Moby’s reputation in purist circles, his traitorous admission of traditionalist hard rock heritage into the still blossoming institutions of the progressive dance music scene with Animal Rights would unsurprisingly be met with intense disdain, and for some it proved to be the final nail in the coffin that secured Moby as the movement’s great heretic.
But despite its reputation as a single-minded descent into the shallow conventions of rock music past and present, the nature of Animal Rights (1996) was, in reality, entirely dialogic, a conversation between two distinct musical spheres that lived within Moby’s artistic sensibility: that of murmuring ambient music (a continuation of the aesthetic of his mildly-received 1993 album, Ambient) and his resurging passion for the raw disorder of overdriven electric guitars and shouted vocals. Unlike many other similar genre-bending experiments, these two sides remain, for the most part, isolated from each other throughout the album; instrumental ambient interludes separate chunks of metal and punk songs without bleeding over or being encroached upon and vice versa, illustrating a rift in Moby’s musical conscience, a separation born of the wider-felt phenomenon of a mutual, seemingly irreconcilable dissociation between electronic and rock music and its fans at the time. That Moby maintained throughout Animal Rights a considerable commitment to his electronic sound despite the popular consensus of the album as a “rock record”, shows how factionalist popular music had become in that moment when anything short of 100 percent loyalty to the cause was regarded as an indefensible betrayal.
So with punk and alt-rock die-hards inevitably turned off by any association with the electronic movement and techno devotees already aggressively suspicious of Moby’s sacrilegious attempts to thrust their music into the mainstream, Animal Rights was doomed never to find its audience even before release. To make it worse, those within the two distinct, oppositional, highly-insular communities who did give the album a chance did so on their own partisan terms, creating a version of the record in their minds in which the less favorable qualities of the music (meaning those simply outside of the stylistic dogma of their genre of choice) tainted the purity of that which spoke to their predilections. Because of this split, following the album’s release, Moby naturally found himself a man without a country.
But might this have been by design? Moby surely recognized the tempestuous climate of both the rock and electronic communities at the time, so he no doubt expected at least some of the extensive backlash he would eventually receive for this undesired hybridization. Indeed, his ambition with Animal Rights seemed to be to create a sound that was rooted in his own nostalgic comfort but was also provocative, even transgressive, to that tense and factional cultural environment. The mainstream music press, still locked to a rock-centric mentality following the boom of grunge and Britpop, had for years failed to properly acknowledge the flourishing underground electronic music movement and, to some extent, Moby himself.
Because of his appetite for commercial recognition and his willingness to “dilute” (from the point of view of uncompromising purists) the essence of rave and techno music in service of broader appeal throughout the early ‘90s, Moby had alienated an insular electronic music community which prided itself on its isolation from a dominant pop culture that seemingly couldn’t care less about them. From this perspective, it’s hard to see how Moby could have possibly crafted Animal Rights intending it as an artistic “compromise” between the divided worlds of electronic and rock, or as a beacon of unity between the two parties; on the contrary, the album plays more like an outpouring of sheer frustration, meant only to antagonize the two communities who refused to acknowledge each others’ space within the same devastatingly fractured culture.
With Animal Rights, Moby yearned to agitate everyone who refused to listen, from the gatekeepers of music culture in the press and the corporate classes to the dogmatic rockists to even his own fairweather followers who were abandoning him in droves even before the album release. From its stylistic roots in the music of Moby’s youth to its deeply provocative spirit, the album was an attempted personal liberation from these restrictive bonds and, in the spirit of Reed and Bowie, a message that Moby the artist — and electronic music as a whole — could not be contained by a status-quo-worshipping conservatism. Moby pushed against the movement’s stifling, self-imposed confines so it might continue to grow, particularly in its commercial ambitions.
Sparking a Dialogue
Within this context, the album is much easier to wrap your head around. Either to misdirect expectations or to set the stage for his angry transgressions against the domineering principles of an isolationist rave culture, Moby began Animal Rights with “Dead Sun”, a crawling three-and-a-half-minute build-up of synth strings and pads that would mingle with his unwanted rock experiments so, from that point on, Ambient and Moby’s hesitant techno base audience would be inextricably linked with an equally averse rock crowd. After its repetitive climb over duplicated chords, the track fades away into “Someone to Love”, the initial fierce shock of punk that kicks off Animal Rights proper — the opening of the can of worms after a familiar and comfortable appetizer.
The two songs have more in common than it may seem at first. Both make the most of very few tools: “Dead Sun”, with its slowly surging and limited chord progression, somehow manages to evoke the warm sentimentality of nostalgia, emotions mirrored by the black-and-white family photograph on the album sleeve; “Someone to Love”, in the hardcore tradition, utilizes a limited stable of notes as well, but they come instead in the form of simplified power chords, played quickly on distorted electric guitars with a backdrop of incessant digital snare shots on the offbeat and kicks in-between to arouse the emotional cycle of anger and catharsis. With this juxtaposition, the two aesthetically diametric sounds reveal their kindred philosophies, each paring down music to its basic elements and provoking feeling through minimalism. Moby lends dynamism to the chords in “Dead Sun” by lengthening them, letting the waveforms swim in their reverberations, the slow-attack instruments creating a soft and soothing bed for its intangible poignancy; “Someone To Love”, in contrast, flattens, accelerates, intensifies, and loudens. Though both tracks use it in different ways, they both maintain that essential minimalism.
A Man Without a Country
This juxtaposition is cultivated over the course of the record. “Now I Let It Go”, another instrumental, introduces a serene sentimentality through acoustic guitar picking and the slow vibrato of a violin between the whip-crack drums and searing guitar solo of “You” and visceral rave-up single “Come on Baby”. After “Soft”, a downtempo headbanger bearing a faint but favorable resemblance to ragged Black Flag cuts like “Damaged I”, comes album centerpiece “Anima”, which revisits the gradual flex of ambient synthesizer pads and droning bass notes with (for the first time within the album’s instrumental pieces) a digital drum set, obscured slightly by delay and reverb, and the hint of a melodic refrain played with some bright keyboard patch. Later, “Old” initiates the album’s surprising final section, abandoning the guttural vocals and buzzsaw guitars that dominate the rest of the record for airy acoustic ballads and poignant instrumentals.
The album’s most remarkable one-two punch, though, hits hard in its third quarter with the ten-minute “Alone”, characterized by another swell of ethereal chords, this time punctuated with a thunderous percussive groove and a thumping house kick, and the ten-minute “Face It”, an over-the-top dramatic rock opus unlike any of the other explosive tracks on Animal Rights. In both of these songs, Moby luxuriates in their disparate designs: in “Alone”, he adds a new harmonic component every minute or so, first adding more pads in a higher octave, then strings, then a subtle twinkling piano riff, all to quietly escalate its emotional fabric over time, while “Face It” features a Nirvana-inspired intro featuring raw, clean electric guitar strumming and Moby’s mumbled vocals, several minutes of the kind of exuberant guitar noodling that punk and alternative rock normally don’t allow for, and a drawn-out ending in which Moby’s shouts fade into haunting near silence and the harsh guitar dulls out into the quiet hum of digital strings. Sequenced beside each other, “Alone” and “Face It” make for a compact summary of Animal Rights’ dichotomic essence, and because of their exaggerated qualities and their expanded sonic footprints, they may stand even today as Moby’s definitive artistic statements for each of their respective genres.
Many critics misinterpret the crucial point of Moby’s clash of styles. Writing in his review for Spin, James Hunter says, “On Animal Rights, Moby’s insistence that rock is rock, techno is techno, and electronic intellectuals should keep to England just undoes him,” but while Moby mostly divorces his ambient and rockist sensibilities throughout the album, he still keeps them in proximity of each other in such a way that invalidates the total disassociation that Hunter seems to suggest. The album is structured as a dialogue between the two (recognize the perfect dichotomy of “Alone” and “Face It” played back-to-back); if Moby wanted them completely separated, he wouldn’t play up this relationship so frequently, or, better yet, he wouldn’t have made the album at all.
The Overlooked Origins of Pop Provocation
This kind of misunderstanding was common upon release during a time when Moby was regarded as boorish and undignified in comparison to “artier” and more hip techno stalwarts like Aphex Twin, the Orb, and Underworld, so critics had the tendency to be needlessly reductive with Animal Rights. Because the album stood in stark contrast with the rest of Moby’s discography and indeed anything coming out of the electronic community at the time, it made sense that discussion of the album centered around its audacious, brutish aspects, specifically its significant hard rock influence — chugging guitars, screaming hooks, an incessant and propulsive rhythm section — rather than its substantial ambient and techno layers which were nearly comparable both in scope and substance. Animal Rights would forever be easily reduced to the designation of a rock album first and foremost, with a disengaged undercurrent of electronic music not consequential enough to distract from that initial characterization buried underneath it — an assessment that was never particularly accurate.
But because grunge, early post-hardcore, and all other flavors of ‘90s alternative weighed so heavily on the brain in 1996, and because there was such a nagging impulse to simplify and underplay the hidden complexity of Moby’s seemingly bull-headed approach, the massive influence of ‘70s and ‘80s post-punk on Animal Rights regrettably went neglected by the press and by the fans. Entertainment Weekly briefly noted the record’s modern prog-rock and hardcore qualities, and AllMusic linked it to the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails, but few made mention of any impactful influence earlier than 1985. Of course, the album features a cover of Mission of Burma’s 1981 classic “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”, and as a prominent single it garnered substantial conversation in the press, but few thought to consider what the song’s presence on the record might actually signify beyond the generic analysis of Moby’s nostalgic regressivism.
What makes this so glaring is that understanding Animal Rights hinges on recognizing the way it reworks latent post-punk themes, and by ignoring or dismissing this aspect, it’s much easier to see the album as a clumsy, simplistic, and misbegotten trudge through dead rock clichés.
Specifically, seeing the post-punk movement as a predecessor to the album is essential to understanding the fundamental provocation Moby was making. Throughout the record, Moby follows the spirit of post-punk’s progenitors who early on took to a half-ironic, subversive appropriation of traditional and mainstream pop culture materials to comment on the particular space they occupied; in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was mostly disco and the classic rock nobility whose authority was being tested, notably with a wave of punk covers of more canonical tracks lauded by the establishment press as the best the medium had to offer: Devo’s mechanical piss-take of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Slits’ monumental, pseudo-reggae version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, and the Raincoats’ discordant cut-up of “Lola” by the Kinks. On Animal Rights, Moby adopted this technique with a quintessentially ‘90s spin with his Mission of Burma cover — a band he actually respected — with the musical tools characteristic of his generation: computerized drums, ragged grunge guitars, and naked, warbly vocals. In another tribute to the ghost of post-punk, Moby even graced the B-sides of both the “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and “Come On Baby” singles with an Animal Rights-style Devo cover, “Whip It (Death Metal Version)”.
Like the post-punk greats who embraced the stylistic contours of music their less open-minded contemporaries in the punk scene aggressively demonized (reggae, funk, disco, R&B, electronic, and, worst of all, popular rock music), Moby used Animal Rights to introduce his own conceptualization of the musical establishment — at the time, alternative rock — to a dance music community skeptical about the prospect of growing or branching out into the mainstream, and at the same time indict the alternative rockers for turning their backs on the innovations of electronic music. In the same way that legacy artists like Johnny Rotten “betrayed” their punk audiences with danceable and sonically-adventurous projects like Public Image Ltd. to criticize their unwillingness to build a constructive (rather than purely destructive) movement, Moby resented the electronic and rock worlds’ stubborn refusal to push their music and their culture outward, and Animal Rights was the result of that frustration.
By paying homage to his own personal heroes with jagged ‘90s-flavored covers of ‘80s classics, Moby was inviting a conversation about how the essence of post-punk and ‘80s college rock had been born, matured into grunge and ‘90s alternative, then assassinated by a diseased over-commercialization and sonic conservatism that plagued live music clubs, record stores, and radio waves with hundreds of generic, corporate-developed punk/metal crossover soundalikes in record time. For a bonus punchline, Moby even changed the title and lyrics of his Mission of Burma revisit to “That’s When I Realize It’s Over” to accommodate objections by MTV and broadcast radio stations who were worried that the song promoted violence in a way inappropriate for general audiences. By 1996, grunge had been utterly buried by a post-Nirvana wave of one-hit wonders doing laughable Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder imitations; Moby’s unabashedly ‘90s version of a highly-influential 1981 alt-rock tune, by taking its influence from both periods, spiritually bookended the movement, and it was, in many ways, a fitting eulogy for its speedy demise.
With all this in mind, it’s understandable why Animal Rights was met with derision, bewilderment, and even apathy upon its unleashing in 1996. Moby had conceived of an unholy fusion of two arguably incompatible genres held together by two insular and contemptuous audiences, and the finished product, as compelling as its story is, wasn’t really true to either.
This is made all the more fascinating by the fact that Moby found unprecedented commercial and critical success for the electronic music community just a few years later by doing essentially the same thing he did with Animal Rights by taking blues, gospel, and roots music samples and integrating them into ambient techno on Play. That one of these albums is today regarded as somewhat of a short-sighted and shallow failure and the other an enduring, innovative success seems at first to be the result of a difference in execution: while Play is primarily dance music that merely alludes to the rhythmic and melodic palimpsests of its bluesy forebears, Animal Rights is chiefly regarded as a rabid rock experiment that only dabbles in Moby’s traditional electronic sensibility, and even still its generic classification can be murky.
“Come On Baby” is perhaps the album’s most successful attempt at blending together squealing lead guitars, drum machine rhythms, and pop hooks, but no right-minded listener (purist or not) would venture to call it “punk” or “metal”, and certainly nothing aligning with contemporary electronic sensibilities, either. Now, as then, Animal Rights stands as an entirely unique experience stylistically separated from its many inspirations.
The truth about why Play casts such a long shadow over Animal Rights is more complicated. When regarded as the two flip sides of Moby’s artistic consciousness, Animal Rights and Play serve nicely as examples of the timeless duality between an artist’s creative inclinations and their commercial ambitions. By abandoning the predilections of his fan base and making few meaningful attempts to appeal to the rock-oriented observers, Moby took a leap of faith with Animal Rights, one which proved doomed to very nearly sink him from a commercial standpoint; using what he learned, he returned just three years later with a moderately innovative record that didn’t sacrifice mass appeal to make its statement. That his experimental, modernized treatment of punk was disparaged for being a perverted and uninspired attempt at genre-mashing makes his incessant determination to derive modern dance tracks from outmoded musical styles like blues and gospel all the more impressive. Play very easily could have been another critical failure, but this time one that very likely would have proven fatal for Moby’s career.
But then Animal Rights, in having to navigate the expectations of two distinct and highly insular musical communities, was far more subject to the cultural politics of fandom than Play. Animal Rights was limited by its devotion to two audiences who wanted nothing to do with it, and with a broader public still learning what the basic concept of electronic music even was, it had a marginal effect on those watching from the outside. It was much easier to misinterpret and malign an unrefined experiment that no one was listening to than to contend with what it was actually saying at the time.
Still, the turnaround was remarkable. In 1996, Moby was a rebel seeking to confront the dance music establishment he had come to resent; once Play caught on by the turn of the century, he was its pacesetter. Arguably, Moby would have never reached the high-point of Play without the digging-in-the-dirt genre fusion of Animal Rights, an experiment that helped shape his warped sense of individualism, his status as a self-assured, defiant outsider and establishment agitator, and his boundary-breaking vision for the future of electronic music. It helped him to see the barriers of what both general audiences and the dance music faithful would accept as “worthwhile” art, develop an understanding of the balance required in crossover experimentation, and determine a more sensible approach to the advancement dance music culture — all lessons he would take with him into the millennium. On Play, Moby would continue toying with guitars and the nostalgic essence of classic popular culture, but he would make it inviting rather than alienating. He would finally see the American mainstream recognize the underground movement he once upon a time helped develop, and for a few more years he would remain a vital contender in its global community.
Play got him and the country to that point, but Animal Rights got them to Play.