Sunday, November 4, 2012

Animal Collective returns to earth with solid, not stellar Centipede Hz

I had a hard time getting into Animal Collective, until a friend gave one of the best pieces of advice ever about this band. You can't be preoccupied with what your expectations are or what you think their music should be. Each album is its own unique journey, and the listener has to be willing to let the band take them where they want you to go. They aren't the only band this applies to, but for a band as out there as Animal Collective it's non-negotiable. Take their music on these terms or not at all.

Naturally, this requires the ultimate test of open mindedness on the listeners' part. But few bands are capable of taking you to such exotic, otherworldly locales as Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, and crew.

Coming off the career affirming success of 2009's Merriweather Post Pavillion, the band found itself in a dilemma. Merriweather was not wholly representative of the sound they had been issuing on the eight albums that preceded it. Do they be true to themselves, or streamline their sound further?

Those who jumped on the Merriweather Post Pavilion bandwagon may be less thrilled with the route they chose. Centipede Hz is a return to form for the Baltimore psych rockers, while still signifying they understand the importance of melody. It presents a dizzying blend of fuzz, static and radio waves, while projecting an image of being stranded in deep space.

Opener "Moonjock" clatters and sputters to life like a projector that hasn't been used in a long ages, then kicks into gear with a series of sharp buzzing percussive cymbal clashes before launching into a tune that sounds like Avey is broadcasting from space. It ends with a joyous climax that gives a hint of the party that Animal Collective is gearing up for.

Some songs sound like they were written by someone with severe ADD. "Applesauce" and "Monkey Riches," in particular, are a massive clusterfuck. They are characterized by an ever shifting, ever evolving gyroscope of different hooks and melodies. Keeping up with the structure of "Monkey Riches" can trip up even the most steadfast listeners; at over six minutes it can't sit still for any significant length of time. Even Avey Tare seems in awe of the staggering collection of riffs he's assembled here, as he sings: "It makes me wonder how I even wrote this song/ Does this not occur to almost everyone?" In truth, the lyric actually reflects more upon trying to make it through a tough day to day existence, but one could be excused for thinking it a comment on Portner's songwriting.

Both Panda Bear tracks are loopy slow burners. "New Town Burnout" in particular sounds like he's suffering from a drug burnout as he slowly meanders his way through the song. It captures the droning atmosphere of pieces like "Scheherazade" and "Drone" from Tomboy while also possessing a watery, fluid sound like something from Down There. The instrumental break feels like The Little Mermaid on acid. It isn't the only song with fluidy, watery beats. "Pulleys" and "Father Time" also fit into this mold, seeming to draw influence from Down There.

While Panda Bear's voice sounds very similar to Avey Tare's, there's no mistaking Deakin, who takes lead vocal on "Wide Eyed." His voice is flat, but gives the track a psychedelic Indian vibe. The track gets loopy at the end with maniacal laughing and tape loops running over each other.

There are even progressive elements in play at certain places. "Today's Supernatural," for example, goes through several clear phases, and when it ends it's clearly a different type of song than it was in the beginning. The opening verse is bolstered by a demented buzzing riff which is reminiscent of the organ grinder guy in the windmill who teaches you The Song of Storms from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But it gets spacier and more thoughtful as it progresses, ending with Portner musing: "Today feels so supernatural."

Another key element on this album is transitions. It's something the band has been obsessed with ever since flawlessly merging together the first two tracks on Campfire Songs, and over the years they've further refined the technique. Songs seamlessly flow into one another, often assisted by spacey, radio wave effects that earmark the album. "Moonjock" and "Today's Supernatural" both float around in a warbly spacey wash of radio wave effects before transitioning into the next piece. Recognizing that the audience needs a breather from time to time, however, the band does insert clear start and end points at the end of songs at regular intervals.

Animal Collective's lyrics are often bizarre and rambling, but despite that they do manage to get a clear theme across. It's like reading an essay paper from a slacker student; there's often a bunch of excess and extraneous verbiage that doesn't seem to relate to their central point, but you can see what they're getting at. "Today's Supernatural," for instance, contains imagery including dressing yourself up in chains and paint dripping from a canvas on an easel. But the real story is told by the central refrain let-let-let-let go; the song at its core talks about relaxing, easing up, and taking things as they come.

Some songs provide more clarity. "Applesauce" is quite clearly about the awesomeness of eating fruit, while "Moonjock" charmingly tells the story of a long backseat ride on the way to a family vacation. "Amanita" is the best representation of that childlike parading off into the forest vibe they championed on Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. Portner sings: "What are you gonna do? Go into the forest/ Until I can't remember my name/ I'm gonna come back and things will be different/ I'm gonna bring back some stories and games."

Animal Collective have employed a masterful range of sounds and musical concepts throughout their career. Their albums have focused on everything from gentle campfire acoustic music to sounds fully drenched in electronica, and some albums have even bordered on freak folk. Centipede Hz sounds like a logical progression from Feels and Strawberry Jam, with Merriweather being the true outlier in the band's catalog.

Yet Centipede Hz, which was influenced by CDs of radio station call signs, doesn't live up to some of its predecessors. Some of the ADD pieces, particularly "Monkey Riches," get a bit wearisome  and some of the drone/burnout pieces don't quite hit the right notes. Yet Animal Collective succeed in playing to their key strength. The new album is every bit as endearing and charming as anything they have put out. Though it isn't perfect, it fits in perfectly with the rest of their output.

Score: 82/100


Murph said...

Finally! Been waiting on this one.

The Author said...

Yes indeed. Did it live up to your expectations?