If you’re a fan of the likes of Outlander or The Last Samurai strictly for the music, or the works of Simon & Garfunkel, imagine a creative mixture of the styles from all three…and you’ll get something like Animal Saint’s “City on a Hill.” It combines the kind of instruments commonly heard in traditional Scottish and Japanese music, mainly the flute and the sanshin, with a hint of revolutionary sounds of fifes and drums, especially in the first eight seconds of the song.
The musical sound is so extraordinary and unique, it’s the first thing you notice. Then the repetitive, hypnotic drum beat (bum…bum bum bum bum bum ba dum) captures you. It’s such an unusual sound, and yet somehow you find yourself listening, and listening…and next thing you know, the song is over, and you have to play it again because now you want to listen to what they’re saying.
The lyrics are not so much written for the purpose of poetic symmetry, but rather to tell a story. It’s a story retold with a little music involved. It tells of a group that sought to build a city based on what they believed to be the right way, “realizing the perfect government and society as dictated by their religion” (according to Animal Saint’s description of the song). As you listen closely, something sounds eerily familiar…
Sanctified, we fought our foes
The witch and the Indians
Two very prominent details stand out as reference to American history. In that moment, it became clear to me: this song is a commentary on some of our country’s questionable choices.
With that in mind, the failure of this “city,” implied by lyrics, is another interesting commentary.
In our town we built a fire
To purify the heretics
But our town itself became
These haunting words are followed for the rest of the song first with an equally haunting choir, then a return of the revolutionary drums and fifes. Now, it could be a bit too deep of a look-into, but something tells me they knew what they were doing when choosing what sounds go where. I say so because when you listen to some of Animal Saint’s other music, each song is significantly different from the next, and each sound is deliberate. For songs chock-full of symbolism, it doesn’t seem too far a stretch to claim that they’re symbolizing something in the instruments they use.
That being said, the choice of having the song begin and end with revolutionary sounds strikes me as intentional. Take from that what you will.
Symbolism and otherwise aside, the song itself is an enjoyable listen: mesmerizing beat, satisfying instrumental sounds to cater to different tastes, lovely moments of homages to cultural and genre music styles (something that crops up in many of their songs), a nostalgic voice that brings you back to the sixties. A satisfying collection of elements.