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Animal Scream

When the acclaimed Pittsburgh band 1,2,3 dissolved following the grueling production of 2014’s double LP Big Weather, Chad Monticue and Josh Sickels, who comprised half the group’s lineup, knew they had unfinished business. The result is Animal Scream, a new duo that supplants 1,2,3’s psych-pop psychedelia with a vibe that’s darker and more cinematic, a noir-tinted sound in thrall to the eternal groove.

On the duo’s second album, Heartbroke Motel, Monticue and Sickels draw on influences as varied as David Lynch, MF DOOM, and ’60s reggae, and carve out nocturnal soundscapes for the alienated and brokenhearted. While their first album as a duo, 2020’s Nightwalk, was indebted to a bottom-heavy constellation of dub and motown influences—a style the musicians cheekily call “Evil Motown”—Heartbroke Motel is more synth-splattered and cinematic. A friend told the band the album sounded “like gothic Phil Spector,” and it’s as concise a description as you’re apt to get.

Above all, these songs radiate with the ease of collaborators who’ve worked together for a long time. Although the band is new, Animal Scream’s story dates back to their teen years. Growing up outside Pittsburgh in the late ’90s, Monticue and Sickels bonded over The Beatles, punk, and hardcore music. Monticue, who played bass, was deep into Fugazi and Dischord Records; Sickels was a self-described “merch guy” who toured with indie-punk bands. “I was going to shows and he was in heavy bands, and we just met that way,” recalls Sickels. “It’s almost like our musical tastes shifted as we grew up. I went from being a punk rocker, doing front flips off the stage at shows, to smoking weed and listening to Kid A.”

A self-trained drummer with a thunderous, nontraditional style (lesson one: easy on the cymbals; focus on the toms and rims), Sickels has always been the right-hand man to the songwriter in a band. He spent the early 2000s playing in Strokes-y garage-rock bands with singer Nic Snyder. Years later, he and Monticue finally joined forces in the band 1,2,3, with Snyder as their singer. 1,2,3 signed to Frenchkiss and received notice for their psych-damaged 2011 debut New Heaven. The band followed that up with 2014’s polarizing Big Weather and launched their own label, American Hermitage, when Frenchkiss declined to release it. A sprawling concept album, Big Weather was hailed by some and ignored by others, and it presaged the band’s dissolution as Snyder moved back to California.

It would be half a decade before Monticue and Sickels made another. Life changed. Monticue became a father. Sickels opened a popular pizzeria in Pittsburgh. They rechristened themselves Animal Scream and, as the decade neared its end, recorded a dark and alluring debut, Nightwalk. The album’s sound reflected Monticue’s growing interest in producing, beat-making, and analog synths. Nightwalk was recorded under stressful circumstances—one musician dealing with a devastating breakup, the other trapped in a soul-sucking job—which shaped the narrative of the songwriting, private heartbreak funneled through the lens of surrealistic horror.

Yet no songwriter could have predicted the horror that would arrive just in time for Nightwalk’s scheduled release date, in April 2020. The world shut down, and the album got delayed. Finally released in July of that year, Nightwalk landed in the seventh spot on the North American College and Community Radio Chart (NACC), but Animal Scream were forced to cancel their substantial touring plans. “We just decided, let’s get back to the lab and start cranking out some more tunes,” says Monticue.

The resulting album, Heartbroke Motel, was self-produced and recorded over a year and a half in Monticue’s home studio, and mixed by longtime friend Jake Hanner. As the pandemic dragged on—those interminable early months stretching into a year—the album became an outlet for these two musicians to exorcise their pent-up energy and frustrations. “It’s just the two of us,” Sickels says, “and when we get inside the band together, we can just go hog-wild and just do whatever we feel like doing. It’s an explosive creative outlet for us, and we’re really meticulous.”

At a time of extreme emotion, they were drawn to extreme sounds. The opener, “Russians in La Mesa,” bursts open with a wallop of harsh, red-lining synths. Monticue told the mastering engineer to make it sound like Yeezus. “We aren’t afraid to be peaking. We want things to be distorted,” he says.

Groove is central to Heartbroke Motel. “Cannibals” revels in apocalyptic visions over a driving four-on-the-floor thump, while “Heartbroke Motel” examines the record’s core themes of communication and separation over a funky synth workout that’s a kissing cousin of DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor.” The band favors stacking live drums on top of programmed beats, and Sickels’ deconstructed approach to drumming—often sampling his own drum sounds—colors the band’s recordings. “We’ll create a loop that way. I’ll get a snare sound I like and we just build a drum sound,” Sickels says. “I never sit behind a drum set and just play.”

The duo also embraced nonconventional writing techniques. Monticue recalled reading about Brian Eno’s habit of keeping a tape recorder on him at all times to capture any stray ideas. He began doing the same. “I equate it to trying to capture and unscramble alien signals that quickly hit my brain, and then I’ll kick demos over to Josh so we can collaborate,” Monticue says.

So fruitful were these writing sessions that they also produced a song called “Fires After Dark,” which was omitted from Heartbroke Motel but will be released (alongside the b-side “Cinnamon Blue”) as a 7-inch single in July 2022. “Fires After Dark” is an anthemic rave-up whose roots date back to the fever dream of summer 2020, when riots and protests for racial justice consumed the nation. Monticue wrote the track as an artist’s anthem “about the essence of creating art during twisted up days, even when you feel out of place and at your most insignificant.”

Above all, Monticue and Sickels wanted to craft a record that would complement the first Animal Scream album—“something a little bit different, but rooted in the same vibe and soundscapes,” as Monticue puts it. “Sister records was the aim.”

Heartbroke Motel achieves as much, building on Nightwalk’s simmering noir textures, and yet still manages to push Animal Scream to new stylistic extremes. “Wicked Jungle,” with its disembodied traces of a vocal hook, is not like anything these musicians have done before: one half scuzzy industrial groove, one half Kid A-style deconstruction. “The Beast with Two Backs,” meanwhile, is a foreboding, two-part instrumental—redolent of the duo’s love of woozy film scores—with a title that references Shakespeare by way of MF DOOM. Or witness the galloping intensity of “Strangled Up in Two,” a high-octane scorcher whose lyrics take inspiration from The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber’s 2014 novel about a Christian missionary on an alien planet.

Such unorthodox inspiration sources are de rigueur for these songwriters—the more nightmarish the better. Some of their songs were inspired by the HBO Asia horror anthology series Folklore; others by hours spent watching supernatural television shows like The Leftovers or Netflix’s bizarro Brand New Cherry Flavor. “Our main influence in this band has been not music,” says Sickels.

In fact, the duo’s main catalyst in starting the band was the 2017 revival of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which inspired both musicians to want to create something adventurous and polarizing. “The otherworldly experience of Twin Peaks: The Return’s outlandish editing and filmmaking vision ignited this intoxicating spark of drive and creativity in me that I still can’t quite explain,” Monticue says.

Monticue is a budding screenwriter, and both musicians are devoted horror fans. “It doesn’t even have to be good,” Sickels laughs. “As long as it’s adventurous, we’re into it. It’s like, ‘Holy fuck, what was that visual they threw in?’ Songwriting-wise, that’s the type of stuff we’re into.”

Yet the supernatural dimension of Animal Scream’s music never belies the emotional core underneath. A sense of desolation and loneliness permeates this album. The cover displays a warped image of the house where Sickels once lived. Communication and loss are the weighty themes. “Please don’t come back for me,” Monticue croons on “Forget Your Love,” a sorrowful break-up tune that features mariachi trumpet flourishes by New Orleans musician Josh LeBlanc.

It’s one of two songs that reference the titular Heartbroke Motel, a mystical place where haunted memories and demons hang out in perpetuity.

As Monticue explains it, the title came about as a cheeky bastardization of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”: “It’s about love, lost love, things like that. It was meant to be a place where you have all these memories, good or bad. They’re past memories. They’re in this Heartbroke Motel place, where you can move on.”

At the core of Animal Scream’s music is a similar philosophy: that to move on from heartbreak and dissonance, you have to face the horror head-on. Listeners confronting their own heartbroke motel will find this album to be a worthy soundtrack of catharsis.


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