This review developed from multiple listening sessions with the album as well as a short Q&A session with the Kevin Donohue, guitarist, keys and principal member of SunSquabi.
“Instinct is a biological-themed journey of evolution. With the addition of Josh Fairman (bass/synth bass) last year and new levels of compositional prowess and sound design, it is evident that the group is dedicated to forward trajectory and experimentation. Each song’s namesake inspired by a creature or biological element is a reflection of every track taking on a distinct life of its own.”
Instinct, the just released album from SunSquabi, is clever in both its concept and execution. It’s the group’s most comprehensive studio work yet, and also the first LP with Josh Fairman recorded on the whole thing. Each song (with the exception of Dexter’s Day Out) is named for an animal or insect species, most of which are endangered. If you listen carefully, you can imagine the species as part of the song, some more obvious than others. The album is a mix of electronica, dance music, funk and even classical undertones. Overall, the album’s theme is well stitched together and quite beautiful overall. Kevin Donohue had this to say about how the album theme came about –
“We have a love for biology, nature, diversity of life and all the amazing different lifeforms there are on the planet. The concept of evolution has been a very big theme for the band over the last two years as we feel like we are evolving and adapting into our strongest form. The idea to do a whole album based on this idea started with finding the most incredible orange caterpillar outside of our recording studio one day early last year. This prompted the metamorphosis tunes and then generally the idea of writing songs about different animals.”
I’ve seen SunSquabi live twice now at Sweetwater 420 Fest in 2017 and early 2018 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Despite that, I feel I’m still getting familiar with this Colorado-based trio’s hydro-funk sound. So, I jumped on the chance to have an early listen to Instinct, the album just released on January 11th. According to their press release, Instinct “finds the band at their highest peak as they have been dedicated to the metamorphosis of capturing elements in their live performances in the studio as improvisational jams have been fleshed out into full-blown songs and staples in their repertoire.”
To prep for this review, I listened to the album at least 10 times – then went back and listened to their catalogue including, their EPs Odyssey and Deluxe and their terrific Live at Red Rocks (Spotify) show which included live versions of Pangolin, Caterpillar, Chrysalis, and Night Moth. Not all of the tracks were being performed live until just very recently but they were performed at SunSquabi’s New Year’s Eve show in Grand Rapids. Now, the whole album is part of the band’s live show. Kevin relates “We are at our best as a live act, and the dynamic of the live show is definitely that we always have something new to play for you.”
The album showcases the highly talented members of SunSquabi but as usual with this group, Instinct also features some great guest performers. Kevin Donohue had this to say about how this developed,
“We really just write and record the songs as they come to us, and whoever is there in the studio or in town to lend some collaborative ingredients ends up being on the record. This LP features a few of our friends like Jason Hann, Nick Gerlach, Gabe Mervine, Eric Luba, Kaila Muladdy and Mark Martin. So we always try to include as many flavors as we can, but this album just ended up being a lot of the three of us in the studio really grinding on writing fresh ideas.”
Kevin plays most of the keyboard parts you hear, the synth pads and leads, and a lot of the synth or percussion based programming. He also plays the guitar throughout the album. Josh Fairman is on the bass guitar and the Moog synthesizer on every track, and Chris Anderson does live drums on every track. Eric Luba, the keyboardist for Analog Son, Runnikine and several other CO based groups is on some acoustic grand piano and organ throughout the album.
If you listen carefully, you can imagine the species as part of the song, some more obvious than others. I asked Kevin how Instinct differs from SunSquabi’s past work and he had this to say,
“The songs throughout ‘Instinct‘ are structured differently than in previous albums, each one really tells a story or a journey of a specific animal. In this way, they are more patient than some of our older releases, more focused on the groove and the development of rhythmic ideas. We also recorded a few of the songs on this album very differently than in the past, essentially writing the whole song out and rehearsing it before hand. In more of a traditional rock method, then we would live record those versions of the songs and go back in and overdub or midi replace what we wanted to in order to thicken up the sound.”
I asked Kevin if they picked the species first and wrote with that in mind or wrote first and then picked the species, to which he responded,
“After the first three songs showcasing the life of the Night Moth, we decided to create a huge list of different species that we were interested in, and then proceeded to write songs about each one. The best ones for now made the album cut, so that means there are still more animal songs down the road that you might hear on a future release.”
Let’s dig in to a track by track listen.
- Pangolin – First, straight out of Wikipedia, “Pangolins (anteaters) are mammals indigenous to Asia and Africa. Pangolins are threatened by poaching (for their meat and scales) and heavy deforestation of their natural habitats and are the most trafficked mammals in the world.” Wow, so not sure what to expect from that description but the song opens up with a nice dramatic head that sticks in your brain throughout. With the turntables (Chris Karns), synth and keys grooving it’s a very tasty lead in to a super powerful guitar solo to synth solo to sax solo to guitar/sax/synth combo sequence for the closeout.
- Caterpillar – This song is the beginning of the Caterpillar-Chrysalis- Night Moth trilogy that was released as singles and traces the life cycle of the species. Great watery synth work along with some heavy guitar licks as the lead on this tune – the synth gives the sound of a caterpillar sliding on the surface back and forth. It moves to a nice string interlude before the build to the end with guitar synth ending.
Caterpillar (and Chrysalis) also feature Chris’ brother Spencer Anderson on the violin, which Kevin says “was a very cool session to do and a fun sound to incorporate into the electronic mix.”
- Chrysalis – A chrysalis is the state between caterpillar and moth and this opens with a feeling of coming out of the shell. A big heavy bass section with a great ghost note timed section is the backbone of this tune. As with most of the songs on Instinct this one is both listenable and danceable and makes you just want to groove along with it. The string sounds are a great trippy add to the mid-section of the song.
- Night Moth – This tune jumps off with a flight sequence that one can imagine sounds like wings beating. The guitar segue makes the song jammy and trancy at once. The bounciness of this tune makes it feel like a moth flitting from surface to surface. Terrific guitar work by Kevin Donohue carries this tune through to its abrupt ending.
- Land Sloth – Well, just what you’d expect, the slow intro moves like a sloth, reminiscent of a very slow 25 or 6 to 4 lick from Chicago. The keys/synth interlude is almost angelic by contrast to the guitar with a long sustain on each note for the sloth pace. The piano closeout has almost a goth-like feel as well.
- Dexter’s Day Out – This tune is the only non-animal so who is Dexter? Dexter was a tune on SunSquabi’s initial Odyssey EP and single with a dog on the cover. “It is about Dexter, Josh’s dog, the REAL executive producer of SunSquabi!”, according to Kevin. The tune sounds somewhat ominous at the beginning like a dog on the prowl. The opening features excellent guitar/synth work followed by some western movie sounding guitar work. I particularly like the juxtaposition of jazzy guitar over futuristic sounding synth work throughout. The single note plucking with the synth to close out the tune is top notch. Dexter’s Day Off and Fisher Cat both feature Jason Hann (String Cheese Incident) on percussion.
- Reptile – This is our favorite cut on the album and definitely the funkiest with massive horn work throughout, featuring Nick Gerlach on saxophone and Gabe Mervine on trumpet. It starts out with a slinky synth and trumpet intro before blasting into horn fanfare.
The horn segue into the sax solo could belong right in a Lettuce or Break Science Live Band set and makes you want to move. Nice bass solo bridge takes you into guitar/synth build and right back into horn fanfare. The synth bass at the end feels like a snake slithering and the sax closeout is terrific. This is one that’s on repeat a lot.
- Fisher Cat – The opener of this can sound like a big cat slinking around and is reminiscent of the opening bars of Lily’s theme by Candy Dulfer on sax with Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) on guitar. Excellent guitar and synth interplay on the song theme overall. This tune probably has the most obvious call out to its title with a clear big cat mewing sound in the middle. This gives way into a nice build back into the head. Again, Kevin stands out on guitar.
- Snapping Turtle – Beautiful keys opening with some rapid drum accompaniment finally bringing in the guitar. This tune is very well balanced between the three main instruments and is quite epic in its sound with Kevin’s soaring guitar. One can envision the snapping turtle paddling through the ocean and moving effortlessly on its journey. The close replicating the keys opening is a nice touch.
- Polar Bear – Beats start out with a sound like polar bears pawing through an ice shelf and the guitar entry gives a feel of a trek through a desolate cold space. Definitely one of the top songs on the album for giving the feel of the title. It’s stark, simple and lush at the same time. The chocka, chocka percussion sound gives the feel of a heavy animal moving through its territory, very haunting and distinctive. A very effective closeout to the album.
The band will be performing at the Fillmore Auditorium on Saturday January 26th as a part of the venue’s 20th anniversary run of shows. Joining SunSquabi for this multi-act celebration will be NYC’s Too Many Zooz , Florida’s The Hip Abduction and Denver-based Nobide with special guest Chris Karns to round out the bill with tweener DJ sets all night long. The group will also feature their largest and most immersive audio and visual production ever.
Catch them as them embark on a two month tour with the dates below –
Jan -30 Boise, ID – Neurolux
Jan -31 Seattle, WA – Neumos
Feb -01 Bellingham, WA – Wild Buffalo
Feb -02 Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
Feb -06 Eugene, OR – Wow Hall
Feb-07 Reno, NV – Crystal Bay Casino
Feb-08 Berkely, CA – Cornerstorne
Feb-13 San Louis, CA – Obispo Slow Brew Co
Feb-15 San Diego, CA – Winston’s
Feb-16 Los Angeles, CA – Morrocan
Mar-1 Phoenix, AZ – M3F Fest
And finally, for followers in Atlanta, they’ll be hitting town for our fabulous Sweetwater 420 Festival in April.