Album: Flying Raccoon Suit – Afterglow

I was recently reviewing some of my favorite albums of all time, trying to understand what makes me love them so much. With a lot of the albums it was pretty straightforward. When I got to Flying Raccoon Suit‘s 2021 album, Afterglow, it was a different story altogether. It doesn’t sound very much like any other album I own. Yes, it’s a ska album- I’m a ska fan and most of the music I own is ska- but this didn’t fit neatly with any of the other ska albums I owned- but it also wasn’t radically different. I listened to it constantly for about a week, before I had an idea. If I’m too dumb to figure it out, why don’t I contact the band and ask them directly? I didn’t get to talk to everybody in the band, but I spoke to Andrew Heaton (Guitar, Vocals, Trombone) and Derek Kerley (Drums, Keyboards, Vocals). Derek Kerley also mixed and produced the album.

While it is not uncommon for ska bands to have 7 members with 7 completely different sets of musical influences, I don’t know many bands that approach songwriting in the way that Flying Raccoon Suit does. It really is a collaborative process. At least 4 members have written the majority of different individual songs, but even the lyrics are typically collaborative. They will message each other song ideas and work it out collaboratively. One member might write some lines or some song ideas, and someone else will work a melody, or flesh out the lyrics. They don’t just write their own portions, anyone will come up with a rhythm, a guitar riff, a bass line, or a horn line. You can hear the random influences in almost every song, nothing is ever straightforward, and the songs are rarely simple, yet they all remain catchy and appealing. 

The album starts off with the title track, “Afterglow“. This is an interesting choice for an intro song for a ska album, because it is definitely not a ska song- but  it still does exactly what the first song on an album is supposed to do. This song is the perfect introduction to Flying Raccoon Suit as a band. It begins with a single held chord on the guitar and heavy drums before the guitar returns and we start our journey as what appears to be metal. The horns come in to fill and after about 30 seconds the music dies down. Cymbals and a simple rhythm on the guitar keep time as Jessica’s vocals come in with the first verse, echoed with reverb, it feels a little uneasy. The pace of the song has dropped dramatically from the instrumental beginning into an indie track. This song has no real chorus, nothing to repeat, nothing to trigger the audience to sing along. Each verse feels a little more intense. The music is louder and more aggressive as the song progresses and the drums become more aggressive, horn lines and melodies are added in, the guitars grow louder and faster. Andrew pointed out that it was not an accident that the song starts in a minor key as the lyrics begin as sad and depressing, and transitions to a major key by the end when the lyrics become hopeful. This is a common theme for the band and the album as many songs begin sad and depressing but become hopeful for change. These are the subtle hallmarks of a brilliant album and they are on full display during the very first song.

From here the album moves on to “Hivemind“, which was considered for the first song of the album when they were first putting the record together. At the start of “Hivemind” we are treated to our first taste of melodica on the album, before being replaced by the saxophones we are more familiar with. It adds an interesting twist and feels more relaxed and calm, before the verse starts and we are introduced to a punk song, with Andrew’s first lead vocals on the album. This is a great juxtaposition with “Afterglow” by showing off more of the range for the band. As a punk song, this track also features one of the few choruses on the album, giving this song a very different feel. The pace seems like it accelerates through the song, and when the chorus repeats it feels fuller and more aggressive each time. Jessica sings the third verse, and her voice typically sounds softer than Andrew’s, but in this track, it just feels more aggressive and there are gang vocals at the end of each line throughout the song. Before the final chorus, there is an almost jazz-inspired horn feature or solo played over the rest of the music as it continues fast-paced punk. Then as the song seemingly comes to a close the guitar picks up and bridges towards a chaotic thrash metal instrumental as several voices chant and yell “Hive Mind”. While I’ve never seen Flying Raccoon Suit Live, I can imagine the chaos in the pit hitting a peak right here.

While the first two tracks on the album are excellent, the third track has to be one of the favorites on the album. “Driftwood” is one of the singles they recorded a video for. When I asked how the song came about, Andrew and Kerley laughed and said that Jessica had mentioned that she would like to write a surf song one day and Kerley told Andrew to turn his reverb all the way up, and they just jammed until they had the basic framework done. Coincidentally, they added in some parts from a previous song called “Sinking Ship”- so essentially a sinking ship was scavenged for driftwood.

Musically, this track starts off with an incredibly catchy surf rock guitar riff that demands your attention. When the vocals kick in the riff switches. Gang vocals join for the rhyming portion of the lines in the verse, welcoming audience engagement. The listener instinctively wants to sing along. The first time we hear the chorus, the music is pretty stripped down and it’s just Jessica doing vocals and her voice feels more ethereal. At this point, the lyrics have been about struggling with depression and drowning. After the chorus ends with a hint of hope, the bridge picks up in tempo led by the bass guitar and horns lay into the signature horn line for the song. We come back to the chorus again, but it feels less ethereal and haunting. The next instrumental portion has some disco-influenced guitar upstrokes as the pace continues. By the end of the last verse, when the subject of the song is ready to “carry on their own” and break free of the depression the music, the pace, and the energy is all full bore on a fast-paced danceable ska rhythm. This is definitely a favorite for good reason. You feel the energy, the talent, and the emotional weight of the song throughout. As a listener, you want to sing along early and empathize with the subject, and at the end, you want to slam in a pit and break free.

“Bleed Me Dry” feels like it’s going to be the first traditional ska-punk song on the album. Brandon made sure the horn lines were a little more intricate than you might otherwise expect as we go through the first two verses and a chorus of a standard ska punk track about a subject being emotionally drained from toxic relationships. But after two verses and a chorus, Kerley takes over on vocals to repeat the chorus. At this point, the ska punk seamlessly transitions to heavy metal as the chorus repeats louder and angrier. The final verse is back to Jessica but the heavy metal didn’t go away. The beauty of the second verse is the mirroring of the metaphors from the first verse, but again, more angry, aggressive, and violent. The emotional vampire is still bleeding the subject dry, but what was formerly draining is now destructive. There is a little disharmonized chaos as the two sing over each other before their vocals sync up with the line “and that’s fine”. As if by magic, the song slips back into the ska punk rhythms led by the horns and upstrokes to close out the way it entered. There is something special about the way these songs slip so seamlessly together.

Continuing with their expansive breadth of influences, Andrew wrote most of “Rebirth” based on Eastern European and Balkan Brass Bands. According to him, Balkan Brass bands take the ideas of American and Western brass bands and flips it on its head and he loves the sound. While I’ve never specifically listened to Balkan brass bands, if this is what they sound like, I am quite the fan, and need to expand my musical repertoire. While the horns on this track often get to show off, the highlight for me is a bridge in the middle of the song where there are no horns, the guitar leads us down a few notes and the vocalists trade off repeating “and it cuts right through me but I don’t mind” with increasingly haunting and ethereal voices over a simple rhythm from the drums and bass guitar, each singer holding the final note as the other begins their line before joining to sing “you’ll never take me alive” and the bridge returns us to the themes of the rest of the song. When Kerley produced this song he had never listened to Balkan music and it reminded him somewhat of what he called “evil circus music”. It was playing on that idea that he added in techniques to make the vocals I describe as haunting to feel more uneasy, and it worked to perfection.

Part of me wants to describe every song on this album and what makes me love it, because each song is absolutely amazing and I love them all. Furthermore, each song is so incredibly unique. “Canary in the Coal Mine” is a blues-influenced song that has hidden environmental messages because Andrew is an Environmental Biologist, but it also has punk and doo-wop influences. In “Everyone Else” the intro is almost the same as Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise”, but the feel of the song constantly evolves and changes before ending with pure thrash metal. In “Nothing’s Changed” they completely inverted a ska song, playing the opposite strings and chords, they feature disco-influenced bass lines, and all-out blast beats on the drums. It’s not just the influences that make Flying Raccoon Suit so unique, it’s their willingness to experiment while holding each other accountable and making sure it sounds great and isn’t just experimentation for the sake of being different.

“Don’t Wait” was written mostly by Brandon and is one of the most musically complex songs on the album. The end of the song reminds me of a “Postmodern Jukebox big band jazz song. Everything from the perfect voice to the flawless jazz, the bass, drums, guitar, to the saxophones. 

Static Home- which is arguably my favorite track on the album- is an indie rock song that has smooth horns and doesn’t have any of the major shifts that define so many of the other songs.

“Red Herring” has to be the fan favorite, if not on the album, then at least at the live shows. Right after the relatively peaceful and smooth melodies of the indie rock “Static Home” with its soft smooth jazz horn lines, “Red Herring” comes crashing through with a chaotic and brash punk for all of about 6 seconds before transitioning to the most pure ska punk song on the album. Three full minutes of upstrokes, some of the catchiest horn rhythms, gang vocals during the chorus, and uptempo ska you will ever hear. If I had to compare it to another ska band, I’d probably say it sounds like some of my favorite Five Iron Frenzy songs. There is no way to not sing along and dance to this song, and I’m told they often close out their sets with “Static Home” and “Red Herring” as the last two songs- which is perfect. Static Home allows you to catch your breath and sway before going all out for the final three minutes and burning every last bit of energy in your reserve.

The album ends with “Toss and Turn“- a much slower song than most of the album, and another indie rock track. While the band has a broad range of influences, one band almost everyone seems to enjoy is Modest Mouse, and that is definitely a key influence in this song. The mood of the song is hopeful, but tentative and uncertain. It’s a fitting close for the album, someone mirroring the first track. The album begins with sadness and rises to hopeful, and it ends in much the same way. Things aren’t better, but there is an uneasy hope that it is on the horizon. I also find it poetic that one of the best ska albums of the decade begins and ends with songs that are not ska. The embrace of outside influences and change are inherent and necessary. This album helped me fall back in love with music. The chorus repeats “and I wonder if you’ll still be there tomorrow” and I will. I want to see what tomorrow brings, and hopefully, Flying Raccoon Suit will let us all see what tomorrow holds.

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Written by Gimpleg