When writing of the sessions that turned into Berserker, the first full album from Jane, Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear of Animal Collective) expresses the following: “...its the dance that gets us going on Jane… mostly it was about hanging out together and talking and playing music and thinking and feeling and having fun and dancing most of all.” One would likely be forgiven, then, for approaching Berserker and thinking it’s going to be a dance album. Because it’s not. Not by a long shot. The only people that would have a prayer in the world of dancing to Berserker are the same people who spend long hours in their homes interpretive dancing to sounds of the rainforest.
Jane is made up of the aforementioned Lennox and Scott Mou, a New York City DJ, the two of them basically jamming together, riffing on a theme until they find something they like, something that speaks to their spirit. Think Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2, think Fantomas’ Delìrium Còrdia. If you’d rather stick a little closer to the artists actually involved here, think “Visiting Friends”, the 12-minute epic of swirling, droning guitars and voices on Animal Collective’s recent breakthrough Sung Tongs. These are pieces and albums that take one part of what makes their respective artists unique, and extends that one thing for periods longer than anyone could have imagined. Berserker is a little bit like “Visiting Friends” stretched out to album length, and appreciation of it will depend largely on whether that sounds like an appealing idea to its prospective listeners.
The opening, title track is actually the shortest thing on the disc at a mere six minutes. It finds a single major chord and sticks with it, with a synthesizer playing the chord in the background and what might be a guitar repeatedly laying the same chord over the synthesized base, providing more of a percussive, rhythmic element than an actual melodic one. Washes and rumbles of noise float in like waves, adding texture and atmosphere to the piece, and Lennox chimes in with his instantly recognizable voice, moaning lovely, descending melodies over the top of it all. “Berserker” itself is a lovely piece of music, perfect for sitting on the beach and trying to discern the difference between the rush of the water and the different shades of noise that ebb and flow throughout the music.
“Berserker” shifts into a series of arrhythmic whistles, which eventually give way to the high-pitched synth drone that defines the majority of “Agg Report”. The drone shifts in and out of focus, occasionally giving way to lower pulses, piano tinkles, and intermittent high pitched distant vocal melodies. There’s actually a beat here, too, though its function seems to be geared more toward keeping time than any sort of dancing. “Slipping Away” follows, and its title proves curious as it is the one song on the CD with a true sense of build. The song begins as all the others do, quietly and slowly, with various sounds and voices getting pitch-bent into unrecognizable sonic textures. Eventually, however, a beat shows up, Lennox borrows the vocal filter Thom Yorke used on Kid A‘s title track, and “Slipping Away” turns into a far different beast entirely. The beat continues its build throughout the track, eventually taking over at about the six-minute mark as the predominant feature of the song. Of course, it all disintegrates two minutes later, turning into an abstract sound collage that’ll completely frustrate anyone who was relieved to finally find a song that they could nod their head to.
As it turns out, the easily frustrated will be no less so as the album closes with “Swan”, a nearly 25-minute drone that’s actually more static in nature than any of the still drones before it. “Swan” is interesting for its ultra-slow pitch-shifting and the further manipulation of organic sounds into alien ones, but mostly, it’s background noise for those scared of silence.
All description aside, the question of value remains. It would be easy to look into Berserker and find some kind of deeper meaning, some sort of statement on soul-searching, the breakdown of society, and the current state of independent music. Even so, I’m not entirely sure that one exists. More likely, Berserker is the sound of two guys making noise with whatever instruments they have lying around the house, and coming up with an hour’s worth of material that they thought sounded good enough to unleash upon the general public. As just that, it’s decent and pleasant; unfortunately, it is destined to fall short of the expectations that any association with Animal Collective will, fairly or not, push upon it.