Her Name is Calla’s Animal Choir is a post-rock triumph

Her Name is Calla Animal Choir

Give the People What They Want is a recurring feature and editorial experiment in which Treble explores individual albums as suggested by Patreon supporters. The albums are all over the map—albums we know and love, albums we like but from artists we don’t know that much about, and some that represent an entirely new avenue of exploration for us. Every few weeks, we will dive deep into albums that, by and large, have yet to be canonized.

Few styles of music in the 21st century are as malleable and nebulous as post-rock. Depending upon who you talk to, the answer swings wildly between bands such as Tortoise, Explosions in the Sky, Russian Circles, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and beyond. The only elements in common between those acts are a shared penchant for sprawling song lengths, mountains of guitars, and a keen appreciation for tremendous rises in volume. Then again, fans of such music have typically landed there after giving up hope in the various directions taken by more prominent forms of guitar-centric music over the past 20 years, so maybe there’s something more visceral in what ties such acts together.

Striding confidently into that milieu came Her Name is Calla. Based out of Leicester and Leeds in the United Kingdom, this now-defunct quintet released its final album in 2019, and it was an absolute doozy. Titled Animal Choir, this 15-song masterwork rumbled with epic grandeur while remaining rooted in proletarian angst in that it’s theatrical without being ostentatious.

Over the course of 15 years, the outfit created a slew of full-lengths, EPs, and other projects to slowly simmering acclaim on the UK and European festival circuit. As the band prepared to record this album, they had to contend with the logistics of growing up and being in a band despite a range of real-life conflicts. When interviewed in 2019, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Weikart said, “We all work full time, some of us have families or live in different cities—trying to line up calendars and make all that work is incredibly difficult and becomes a bit of a time/money vampire, at a time when those things are becoming increasingly scant.”

Later in that same interview, the group talked openly about how they realized during recording that Animal Choir should be their last hurrah and how that spurred them to higher creative heights. Bassist Tiernan Welch stated, “We didn’t start the album thinking that it would be our last. But as it came to a climax it became apparent that this would be it. There’s no animosity or bad blood—we’ve just ran our course. I’d say that makes the album ever more special for us as performers, we just hope that everyone else enjoys it too.”

Throughout their career, Her Name is Calla drew deeply from the sort of melodramatic arrangements you might associate with the platonic ideal of post-rock. With this album, clean, tremulous chord structures propelled the first half of most songs, almost to the point of being sound effects from a synth patch. The last half of those songs then featured deep banks of fuzzy distortion that pummeled listeners’ ear drums. 

Deep, fluid bass lines flowed throughout the tunes, often providing a sublime counterpoint to the textured atmospherics created by the guitars and keyboards. The ancillary instrumentation provided some essential flavor, especially the horn bleats, random electronic squawks, and thundering drums. And it’s all tied together by the powerful, earnest, Jeff Buckley-esque tenor vocals of Tom Morris.

Animal Choir is unabashed sonic ambition, a rock opera nearly on par with The Monitor by Titus Andronicus in terms of scope, passion, and delivery. “Swan” kicks down the door with waves upon waves of droning guitars and powerful drumming. With “The Dead Rift,” Her Name is Calla enters at a barely contained canter, and it explodes into a whirlwind gallop at the latter third.

Entering the second quarter of the album, we’re treated to a delightful melange of aural anxiety and tremulous tension. “Bleach” and “A Modern Vesper” alternately careen around at full speed and stand stock still to stare wide-eyed into the distance. The group pulses with quavering energy as it pushes and strains against every possible boundary. It’s hard to tell if they’re being chased or they’re the ones doing the chasing.

Anchoring the third quarter, “Vanguard” and “To the Other” deliver the sort of quintessential listening experiences you’d expect from an atmospheric rock act with visions of grandeur. Both tunes come complete with the slow, nearly acoustic openings that gently build across several minutes to majestic mountaintop experiences. “Bloodline” anchors the final quarter, as it deftly distills the band’s vision and energy into a tremendous eight-minute tune.  

What makes Her Name is Calla stand apart from the peers who make similar attempts at artful amphitheater rock is how Animal Choir conveys powerful emotional resonance in its use of dynamics, flow, and tempo. It’s one thing to jump from quiet to cacophony in a few mere measures to achieve a quick thrill. It’s another to make that compositional choice because it means something to the overall impact of the song. In lesser hands, these big sonic shifts would sound haphazard and cheap, but this band imbues them with a sensuality most people don’t associate with the genre.

It’s also nice to hear a group that wants to tug at your heartstrings know when to sit back a bit and settle into a groove. Sure, it’s important to know when to bring the noise for maximum effect, but not everything has to always be about the next big climax. More acts should opt for elegance over elegy, the furious not frenzied. It’s great to have big ideas and bigger execution, but there’s something to be said for embracing the everyday and the practical. While it’s sad to think that this band won’t be making any more music together, more acts should go out with such a resounding bang.

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