Afraid of Storms
Animal Planet, by Afraid of Storms, comes at you quickly, the album artwork is great at describing this–there’s personhood, and burning buildings, real and mythical creatures, and a hand holding it all together. The third album by Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Hayden Kesterson, who’s been releasing music as Afraid of Storms for the past five years, is a beautiful and unusual meditation on the blurring between the natural and the social “worlds” as we think of them.
On Animal Planet, Kesterson has mastered a particular and peculiar kind of natural imagery. He takes a turn towards the “less picturesque” elements (bugs, venomous snakes, boring old limestone), rather than a bucolic and romantic route which is common in the singer-songwriter tradition. On “Cicadas,” boys are bugs, on “Daytime Television,” footage of carnage on the TV show Animal Planet is interrupted by mundane commercials. The lyrics play with the listener’s understanding of what is natural and which social practices are considered part of human nature, sometimes shrugged off as such. The opening track, “Aftermath,” draws really compelling ties between boys harming a snake and a bug and the encouragement of these behaviors, “who else’s voice comes out of me / not just like a child, I’m a liability.” Brothers co-conspire, other campers give instructions to a kid. Kesterson explains, “I also wanted to show the physical reality of social institutions, especially masculine ones.” The ligament tear in “Gameday” and the decay of the business building in “AT&T Building” are connected in his mind.
A fear for such an intellectually rigorous and lofty concept for an album would be that it becomes verbose or too clever to be enjoyable. Animal Planet is a well planned tapestry, variety and textural rarities are its strengths. Kesterson’s round, open guitar playing is complete with heavily edited individual autoharp strings and keyboard-wriggles from more synthesis-minded collaborators. The songwriter says that this is a recurring theme with Afraid of Storms, friends fleshing out the structure that’s been in Hayden’s notebooks for months or years. “That’s why the credit list is usually so long,” he says. I’m continuously impressed with his vocal melodies–Kesterson oscillates between the extremes of his vocal range and is not afraid to have good-old-experimental-fun with the weird sounds he can make (which seems only fitting considering the album’s themes).
There’s a lot of erosion and decay on this album, but there’s also homoeroticism and dinner, and the combination is fabulous. After an action-packed, tight 42 minutes, the lyrics “the social world is reducible to tragic dial tone” send Animal Planet to its wavering end in a soundscape of harp, modular synths and dog barking.
And Kesterson is donating all the money raised by this album to the Coalition for Black Trans Economic Liberation.