This article originally appeared in TechNews.
For the last four years, ROAR have not been an easy band to pay attention to. Following two brief EPs in 2010 and 2012 which gained exposure through Jeff Rosenstock’s Quote Unquote Records netlabel, the Phoenix-based project of Owen Evans seemed like it was going through the time-honored tradition of a slow-motion evaporation. Social media posts occasionally showed glimpses of keyboards and microphones, but a promised debut LP was continually delayed and live performances became less and less common. If you weren’t actively seeking out news about the psychedelic pop act’s musical progress, it was easy to forget that ROAR even existed; and for those who were keeping up to date, it was easy to conclude that Evans was losing energy.
In reality, though, precisely the opposite was true.
In August of 2015, ROAR released a split single with folk punk group Andrew Jackson Jihad (now simply called AJJ, the fellow Phoenician band has occasionally counted Evans as one of its members). Recorded live at local mainstay Revolver Records, the new track on the ROAR side of the release had a fitting title: “Hope”. In the ensuing months it became clear that Evans had not languished in the wake of his last EP, and instead had been working with deliberate precision (as promised) on the forthcoming full-length. And now it’s here, the album’s ten tracks doubling the size of ROAR’s catalog to date and setting out to prove itself worth the wait.
“Impossible Animals” slides into existence on a quiet wave of distorted noise reminiscent of a lite version of Sigur Rós’s “Brennisteinn” intro, quickly transitioning into the hazy, melodic waltz of “Dream”. While relatively short (under three minutes), the track has an impressive and intelligent build, working toward a pair of subdued crescendos in its latter half. Evans has added more layers to his sonic toolkit, and brought in a wider cast of creative collaborators to fill his musical landscapes, but he hasn’t stepped away from the core Phil Spector-indebted art pop roots of his compositions. While such distinct stylistic origins may seem limiting on first blush, the modern palette with which Evans performs transforms the genre, resulting in something wholly unique. Like of Montreal’s earliest albums, “Impossible Animals” is not for everyone, but when it clicks with somebody, the experience is exciting.
Aside from an increased number of instruments in the studio, there are some other notable differences between ROAR’s previous releases and this LP. While electronically modulated vocals were a one-time occurrence on the tail end of 2010’s “I Can’t Handle Change” EP, here they are commonplace. In fact, the first verse of “Ghost (of 7th St.)” isn’t even the product of a sung melody, but is instead completely generated by computerized speech tones. The album also includes songs like “Little Sisters” and “Truck Stop Tiger” that could be played back outside the context of the album without sounding “retro” to the casual listener, finding peers alongside Beach House and other purveyors of clean electric guitar and keyboards.
Though it’s easy to devote the bulk of discussion to the more technical aspects of ROAR’s evolution as a band, their true strength lies not in their influences or instruments, but instead in Owen Evans’ seemingly natural compositional strength. The man behind ROAR has been compared to Brian Wilson by numerous publications, a comparison that is not made lightly. Evans’ sense of emotional movement and dynamic contrast is astounding, allowing him to weave through dark lyrical topics gracefully in what some might consider to be the graceless medium of wall-of-sound pop. “Impossible Animals” rarely goes all out, but when it does (in a reworked version of “Hope”, for instance) the results induce shivers. In the span of an almost frustratingly brief 28 minutes, ROAR prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their finished work is worth the wait. Rather than becoming discouraged, listeners should be ecstatic if Owen Evans takes as long to complete his next album as he did for this one.