For nearly 20 years, Baltimore’s Animal Collective have consistently done things their way. Their music has always been something of an experimental exercise, often to a maddening degree. It’s run the gamut from playful to driving to danceable to ponderous – usually in the space of a single album. But their latest is quite possibly their furthest venture from the mainstream yet.
Both in concept and execution, Tangerine Reef is distinctive and uncommon. It’s an audiovisual feast that combines the lush videography of Miami-based Coral Morphologic with all-new music from Animal Collective, in commemoration of the 2018 International Year of the Reef (IYOR). The video (available on Animal Collective’s website) contains time-lapse and slow pans across surreal, brightly colored aquatic underwater vistas with the music (on CD, LP or streaming) acting as a deep, lush soundtrack accompaniment. Predictably, the music is virtually bereft of pop hooks or traditional song structure.
Watching and listening to Tangerine Reef, the immediate impression is of something one might encounter at a museum IMAX exhibit or perhaps a public television documentary. Under these circumstances, it may not seem unusual to expect a David Attenborough Planet Earth narration to pop out of nowhere. Fortunately, Animal Collective’s music is both gripping and oddly seductive, and any other aural distractions would be unwelcome.
Among the IYOR goals are to strengthen global awareness about the value of, and threats to, coral reefs and associated ecosystems. By highlighting the striking beauty of these living things, Coral Morphologic’s videos will undoubtedly raise the kind of awareness that scientists and activists are hoping for. As for Animal Collective’s contribution, you could make a case for the fact that it’s just gravy: a gorgeous, ambient, occasionally jarring soundtrack that seems to drift along for nearly an hour with very little distinctive separation of the tracks. Is this a good or bad thing? If you’re looking singles or specific tracks to latch onto, Tangerine Reef is a letdown. But for its intended purpose, the album succeeds quite spectacularly.
Opening track “Hair Cutter” sets the scene appropriately, with ambient layers of keyboards combining with odd clicking and snapping noises giving off the air of floating, living beings. Vocals tend to drift in and out in a wash of reverb that almost sounds like they’re being sung, yes, underwater. But while the album as a whole often seems to operate as a single, long-form piece of uninterrupted music, styles generally shift as tracks progress. As the second track, “Buffalo Tomato”, begins to take shape, a distinctive pulse begins to emerge, and the result is something almost danceable.
While the unusual, idiosyncratic nature of the music often seems ideally synced in with the visuals, there are times when the atonality is a bit over the top. The vocals, in particular, occasionally seem out of place and self-indulgent. On “Palythoa”, it approaches self-parody. Animal Collective are unique and talented musicians; an instrumental album would have been perfectly appropriate for this project.
It should be noted that this isn’t some cause celebre pet project that Animal Collective is toying with out of boredom. Band member Geologist (Brian Weitz) holds a Master’s degree in environmental policy from Columbia University with a focus on the marine environment. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester working at the Biosphere 2 Center in Arizona, assisting on some of the first CO2 acidification studies on coral growth. Deakin (Josh Dibb) is an experienced scuba diver who’s joined Geologist on diving expeditions where they’ve witnessed firsthand the destruction of the world’s coral reefs. This is a passion project for the whole band, and while it may be hard to parse out how it fits in with their discography, Tangerine Reef is a deep dive – no pun intended – into ambient instrumental territory that contains enough edge to rise above a lot of similarly structured music.
Does the music work on its own terms? Is the video watchable without the music? Yes on both counts, but the visuals work well with the sounds, and seem to be lacking something without a soundtrack. Consequently, the audio and video complement each other well. Tangerine Reef is a project that may likely polarize Animal Collective fans, and it may not be an ideal jumping-off point for anyone looking to discover this unique band, but it’s a worthy addition to their catalog, and it supports a supremely important cause in this day and age.