You can make a good argument that Animal Collective is the first essential band wholly born and raised in the online era, a zeitgeist-defining act that could only have attained the status it has the way it has during this particular period in pop music history. Sure, other groups have earned just as much critical acclaim and greater popularity thanks to the Interwebs—Arcade Fire immediately comes to mind—but it’s not a stretch to claim that none better reflects and represents the cultural moment than Animal Collective does. In contrast to those with retro-minded approaches or who have more obvious touchstones for their sound, Animal Collective feels like it came along at the right place and time, with a frenetic, referential, deeply complex aesthetic that captures how disorienting, nerve-wracking, but also how thrilling, our hyperlinked, socially networked world can be. Whether you get ‘em or not—whether you like ‘em or not—it’s hard not to recognize that there’s something current and relevant about Animal Collective’s dense, substantial music that’s not fleeting or superficial.
While there’s no doubt Animal Collective has benefitted as few others have from the faddishness of blog-age music criticism, the band itself does seem to be unconcerned with self-promotion; if almost everyone else has succumbed to the hype surrounding the quartet, Animal Collective itself can hardly be accused of giving into it. Its latest full-length, Centipede Hz, is a testament to the foursome’s uncompromising artistic vision: Poised to take the obvious step of building on the commercial momentum of 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective continues to do what it does best on Centipede Hz, confounding expectations by tipping the tenuous balance it has struck between eccentric pop appeal and raw experimentalism to the latter.
No, that’s not to say Centipede Hz matches up to Merriweather Post Pavilion as a creative achievement, but it definitely makes a strong statement of its own. Shorn of MPP’s lush, billowing melodies and neo-Beach Boys formalism, Centipede Hz reveals a more jagged and earthier sound that roughs up the rounded edges of its predecessor, trading polished harmonics for more vibrant frequencies. That’s evident from the very start, where the propulsive beats of the opener “Moonjock” and the bristling electronics of “Today’s Supernatural” scuff and scruff up the sublime soundscapes some might’ve been anticipating. Certainly, they don’t offer a listener-friendly wormhole into Animal Collective’s musical alternate universe like MPP’s “Summertime Clothes” or “My Girls” did, not with the choppy mix of clanging rhythms, herky-jerky synths, and Avey Tare’s demented vocals kicking off the album on “Moonjock”. Rather than trying to recreate the all-encompassing, fully immersive environments of MPP’s trademark pieces, these opening tracks set a tone for Centipede Hz as a work that keeps you on your toes rather than sweeping you off your feet.
The emphasis on a live dynamic in the making of Centipede Hz has a lot to do with the more organic and intense listening experience it inspires. Those qualities are felt most powerfully in the way bold rhythms seem just as prominent on Centipede Hz as the synth tinkering, guitar noodling, and production trickery Animal Collective is known for, a change in the band’s plan of attack that accounts for what’s different about the new project. According to an interview in Pitchfork, multi-instrumentalist Panda Bear apparently focused on recording the rhythm parts live, his efforts coming through palpably on much of the latest outing. Indeed, you can’t help but notice how Centipede Hz is intro’d to bashed-up drums and riffs at the very outset of “Moonjock”, which then gets you to realize how many of the tracks begin with a rhythmic element that creates the vibe for what follows. On “Wide Eyed”, the band’s first track led by guitarist Deakin, an ominously thrumming bass pattern lays down a thick foundation for curlicuing glo-fi synth lines and rapid-fire tapped drumming to chase each other frantically. Taking cues from electronica, world music, and Krautrock, the variety of percussive techniques Animal Collective explores covers a thrilling range of moods and textures, from the way languid shakers and sporadically struck hand-drums build an easygoing beach-pop vibe on “Father Time” to a sense of warmth that peeks through in the irregular heartbeat of the bongos on the anarchic closer “Amanita”.
There are moments here when Animal Collective’s relentless eclecticism comes through with more vitality than ever, especially when the synthetic rat-a-tat beats peppered throughout “New Town Burnout” and “Mercury Man” infuse their dazed-and-confused neo-psychedelic palettes with restless energy. These tracks live up to the album’s namesake, which, as Avey Tare told Pitchfork, describes the way the songs are meant to get a hold of your attention: “Centipedes have all these arms, and a lot of the songs have different parts and move all over the place.” That goes extra for Centipede Hz’s standout piece “Monkey Riches”, which digs into your subconscious with wiggly, insinuating rhythms that end up overwhelming you just as thoroughly as MPP’s most monolithic singles do. “Monkey Riches” recalls, of all things, Kid A-era Radiohead, not just because of the glitchy mechanized drum patterns and off-kilter keyboard lines, but also the way Animal Collective navigates the man-machine dialectic on it by fully embracing both sides of it. As electronic ephemera zip across its surface, “Monkey Riches” locks into a Krautrock-y groove that bulks up its hyperdriven space-rock feel with a sinewy sensuality.
Whether it’s due to the live dimensions of the band’s performance or the stress put on amped-up rhythms, what comes through loud and clear on Centipede Hz is how Animal Collective has put more flesh and blood into its otherworldly soundscapes here. The yearning tones of “Pulleys”, for one, bring more human elements to the far-out dimensions of Animal Collective’s sound, as Avey Tare’s searching vocals and resonant percussion ground the floating-in-space atmospherics with more emotional substance. More viscerally compelling is the natural, nitty-gritty feel of the aptly named “Applesauce”, its syrupy mix of buoyant bass and radiating synths adding heft and depth to the ping-ponging sound effects. The way Centipede Hz is made feels more immediate than immaculate, the product of a band that depends as much on instinct and intuitive camaraderie as studio wizardry and whacked-out imagination.
All in all, Centipede Hz is an album that’ll get a hold on you as all its arms grab on and don’t let go. Sure, Animal Collective gave itself a really tough act to follow with Merriweather Post Pavilion, but there’s enough to unpack in Centipede Hz that suggests it’ll have some staying power itself.
// Notes from the Road
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