By Ryan Wilkinson
Like a lot of modern rock albums, Void Ripper – the latest release from Boston’s Animal Flag – crescendos quickly from a soft-spoken introduction to a musical shouting match against the world. Unlike a lot of modern rock albums, Void Ripper manages to wrap within its fuzzy distortion and grungy bass lines the crash and burn of a generation’s love affair with one of the world’s most widespread religions.
Not even Matt Politoski, the brains behind Animal Flag, could have predicted where the project would go. Jumping from folk to electronic to rock music may seem ambitious to most, but for Politoski it was just where the sound led.
“I actually don’t listen to much rock music, and I never really have,” he confesses just one week after releasing Void Ripper, one of my personal top rock albums of 2018, on Triple Crown Records. Those influences, he says, came from bandmates Zach Weeks, Sai Boddupalli and Alex Pickert, all of whom joined Animal Flag shortly after the project’s previous release, LP, was recorded.
“And besides, I think rock is a wide enough genre that I don’t really feel pinned down,” Politoski adds. “You could say Radiohead is a rock band, or Kate Bush is a rock artist, you know what I mean? It’s just such a broad genre, and it’ll keep evolving.” And just like rock as a whole, he plans to keep evolving with Animal Flag.
“We’re a real band now,” he explains with a laugh. Until 2015 Animal Flag had essentially been his solo project, with a “revolving cast of characters” filling out live performances of his songs. While this gave him the freedom to create whatever he wanted, he realized that too much artistic liberty can be a bad thing. “You can go too crazy, too off the walls, and create something that doesn’t really translate to anyone but yourself.”
He does still see the value in carving a space out of the creative process for himself. He’s working on new Animal Flag material that he isn’t ready to show the band quite yet, and has been writing solo music under his own name. At the end of the day, though, he’s ready to take Animal Flag to the next level, with a much more purposeful line-up.
“It’s like a little family, you know? It’s really difficult, and it’s really challenging, but it’s a beautiful thing to be able to go through the ups and downs with a group of people that are my best friends, and that I love dearly. I miss [solo writing] to an extent, but I get that solitary experience in other places. I get the best of both worlds.”
While the stylings of the rest of the band played a major role, Politoski says there was another key player in the shaping of Void Ripper: sheer time. He started writing the songs in 2015, before the line-up was even finalized, and the band went to hell and back over the following three years to create a final product they were happy with. “At one point we scrapped it, and we remixed it, and we took like eight months off because we couldn’t agree on certain things.”
He worried that taking too much time may have had a negative effect on the record, giving them too much time to doubt themselves, but he’s happier with the album now that it’s out in the world after being under wraps for so long. “People can think whatever they think and interpret it however they want, and that’s beautiful. It’s also really scary.”
However, the drive behind Void Ripper’s more chaotic sound is not up for interpretation. “Music is a documentation of a moment in time, sonically and artistically. For me, as someone who writes words, it’s also very much a documentation of a moment in my personal life,” he explains. “I identified as a Christian person pretty much my whole life. This record documented my falling out and my divorce from the faith that I’d built my life upon, and the grief and the sadness that comes from realizing that I can’t be part of that community anymore, I can’t believe those things anymore.”
The disorientation and alienation of losing such a large aspect of his life drove him back to music, both to write and to listen, and he found some solace in the work of artists who had been through similar journeys in their faith. “David Bazan of Pedro the Lion has really been my north star throughout my entire disillusionment process, so to speak.” He tells the story of his first exposure to Bazan, through the singer’s cover of early 20th century Irish hymn ‘Be Thou My Vision’. From there he delved into Bazan’s discography, and saw a falling-out with faith that he didn’t realize he would one day mirror. “When I was a kid I looked at that and thought, ‘Wow, see how dark that is? I hope that I never end up there’, because it seems like the most horrible thing, for me to lose this thing that I love.” But throughout his transition from college to his life as it is now, he held fast to Bazan’s music, even awkwardly meeting him once. “I just didn’t know how to thank him for this, you know?”
It’s a process that has been going on in his life for a few years now, and he believes will continue for a while yet. “I wasn’t ready to leave that world yet, but I was having extreme doubts on LP,” he says, and I can sense his brow furrowing as he speaks. “I started writing these songs right when it got to a point where I couldn’t reconcile two things. I couldn’t reconcile my belief in the Christian God with what I saw in the world.” He says that he actually took that advice from David Bazan, who gave it as an answer when he was asked when people should stop believing. “If you have a conception of God that makes sense to you with how you see the world, then that’s beautiful. But as soon as there’s dissonance there, you need to question what your perception of God is, and equally what your perception of the world is.”
While many people who leave their faith stay away from anything that sounds like religion, Politoski’s split from Christianity doesn’t mean that he’s done exploring that part of the world. “I’m infatuated with ideas of spirituality and how they relate to us, how they help us survive, and how we need them in a lot of ways,” he says on his current writing themes. In fact, he recently released an ambient album, 8 Emanations, based on the ideas of Gnosticism. “[It’s] pretty much the exact opposite of Void Ripper in every way. Void Ripper was me burning down my worldview and sitting in the ashes of it, and realizing that I had barely any psychological and spiritual framework left.” 8 Emanations, on the other hand, is more of a musical meditation. “I aspire to this peace with my past, and with spirituality. On that album I wanted to free myself of lyrics and melody and rhythm, and just explore sound.”
He’s even had some people tell him that they’ve used the record as a backdrop for their own meditation. “I hope that it’s a good sonic driver for people. Whereas nobody’s meditating to Void Ripper. At least, I hope not.”
Jokes aside, Politoski says that the most important part of discovering his beliefs was letting the voice of doubt in. “I was very afraid of it,” he says, “but I didn’t shy away.” That doubt is the tool that helped him chip away his old faith in a painful process that helped him begin anew, much the same way it helped him whittle away at Void Ripper over three years to make it into the album it is today. And while that album only recently got out into the world, Politoski is already thinking about the next steps for Animal Flag.
“I was looking for some consistency in my sound,” he says on writing and recording Void Ripper with a full band instead of on his own. But long-time Animal Flag fans will be happy to hear that, while the rest of the band will ground him, Politoski doesn’t plan on settling into any one style. “I think a lot of people couldn’t really latch onto it as a project because it was so varied. But at the same time, I really like artists that do that, and as far as I see I’ll always switch it up for my albums. I think the next record will be totally different from this one.”
We’ll have to wait to see just how different Animal Flag’s next entry is, but there is a lot to contemplate in Void Ripper as we pass the time. With the group working to solidify their sound in parallel with Politoski as he solidifies his worldview, it’s a complex piece that challenges deeply held beliefs even as it comforts those who have already begun challenging their own, creating a voice that gives a generation what David Bazan gave Matt Politoski: their own north star in the search for balance between blind faith and the world before their eyes.
Void Ripper is out now via Triple Crown Records