Sound: With their sudden burst of mainstream success, Animal Collective have always been escalating in popularity but never to that extent. "Merriweather Post Pavilion" was poppy, catchy, and yet a complete knock of ones senses, especially those that got attracted to the accessibility of the album. For many, it was a first look into the experimental music scene, since it was one of the more inviting albums by such an artist/band. With this in mind, it seemed that Animal Collective needed to match this album. Luckily, Animal Collective never thought along the lines of competition or ranking. Every Animal Collective is, for a lack of a better word, a collection of their influences at that point in time, and this extends past just musical impressions. The state of music, the way of the world as it is at that point in time, the personal experiences of the band members; these all shape what an Animal Collective album will sound like. They usually perform songs from the next album even as far as a year ahead, and their lyrics constantly change because their mindsets change and their positions in life change. Avey Tare got through his divorce, so some of his songs become more positive (and some still have a bitter taste).
The point is, "Centipede Hz" had the same, usual process of development that any Animal Collective album goes through. They didn't feel the need to recreate "Merriweather Post Pavilion" again or to even beat it. The band just wants to make music, and their rather impressive catalogues, ranging from their now nine full length albums in just over ten years (and a few eps, solo albums, and even a visual album) proves this. They have always been great at making albums (ones that are meant to be heard from start to finish), and "Centipede Hz" is no different. On August 19th, the album was streamed online in full with an accompanying video, and I will get into the importance of this in the overall impression section, but just keep this in mind.
What makes this new effort exceptional is just how incredibly put together it is. The apparent concept of the album, from word of mouth, is that this album emulates the result of the kind of radio waves we'd get back from extra terrestrial life that have responded to the radio waves we have sent them. This is a bit farfetched, but it seems very possible. The album is laced together with ambience-driven radio samples, as they ring, clash, drone, and pulsate. This constant, never ending signal, very Sonic Youth in nature with its ability to sound moving yet still be clearly noise, is the first sign of this apparent concept.
But what solidifies this idea more than the radio waves, surprisingly, are the instruments themselves. The band is back to using live instruments and not just electronic sounds and samples, with Panda Bear back on the drums and Deakin back in the band altogether. There are guitars, drums, various percussion, and your usual classic Animal Collective arrangement present. The styles, however, range so vastly on here, covering so many styles of world music whilst delivering a futuristic, unique sound. "Today's Supernatural" mimics a European carnival sound, "Amanita" is carried on by a synthetic erhu, and, as a general example, African and Caribbean percussion lines can be picked out all over the place. This interpretation of the music of the world, as both a success in picking up the style and a different spin on each style, perfectly sends the listener the idea that, yes, perhaps this is the music of the world re-imagined by another species.
The layering on this album is staggering. Panda Bear's impulsive drumming, full of polyrhythms, drum rolls, and complete chaos, are representative of classic Animal Collective, and are even somewhat comparable to his work on "Here Comes The Indian". The various percussive instruments, played by all of the four members of the band, accent each song just as well as the sample based soundscapes Geologist paints, as both aspects either pounce on you and resonate or carve a slope for you to gradually glide down. What is beautiful about their arrangements, though, is that nothing ever stands out too much. In fact, Panda Bear's incredible drumming, and Avey Tare and Deakin's guitar lines are sometimes a bit hard to dig out, but not in a bad way. Everything fits together so well and the album warrants so many listens for you to discover new sounds, ideas, and even new hooks. Animal Collective, as always, have proven once again that they are some of the best at creating walls of sound in this day and age. // 10
Lyrics: Their lyrics have always been either a bit cryptic or incredibly obvious. Usually, their sadder songs are more abstractly written and their more upbeat songs are more straight forward. They seemed reserved and scared to show their dark side, but more than welcome to inflict their happiness onto anyone willing to listen. That's not to say that this was always the case for both statements, but it was fairly common. On "Centipede Hz", it is a bit different. In fact, some of their saddest lyrics can be found here amidst the excitement and joy of their other songs, creating an emotional roller coaster of sorts. Some songs remain emotionally neutral and are up to the listener to interpret their own feelings. For example, "Wide Eyed" has lyrics about fear of being too sheltered and also too observant. Should Deakin know what is going on and be aware of both the good and the bad, or should he remain ignorant but miss out on the ones he loves?
Referring back to the supposed concept of the album, the lyrics hold some truth to this statement as well. A lot of the lyrics seem to be about interpretations of the world and not just its present, but even its history and its future. Pulleys, backed with folk rhythms, tribal percussion and machine-like rhythms, mimics both the industrial revolution and the creation of inventions from the primitive days (figure that out for yourself), whilst relating to ones own ambitions. He describes vines as pulleys, an obvious comparison to nature and technology, and asks of fearful people "why do they want me to move up?". His fear of being pushed along the conveyor belt of the modern world fast enough to miss nature and creation is evident here, and can be compared to the fear of being lost in the real world in the song "New Town Burnout". Each and every song can be picked apart like this.
However, only one more shall be looked at because this review is already getting rather long. The album closer, "Amanita", of which is so bittersweet in nature, is driven by cinematic composition and such a moving melody, but remains quite a sorrowful tale. This outside viewer, narrated by Avey Tare, is worried about the state of the world not only through its development technologically but also through its heritage. He asks about the vikings trails and other folklore that used to bring people together but is no longer present with such a choked up voice, as he goes on to state how he will run away not to leave the world behind him but to start his own folklore, hoping that everyone forgets his current identity. Still, even with such hope at the end, a line like "What have we done? Fantasy is falling down" is permanent and cannot be forgotten.
This album has fewer vocal harmonies than most Animal Collective albums, but that's because each song is more focused on a single interpretation. Of course, the harmonized vocals can still be sound and are used as rewards rather than a necessity, which is always great. Panda Bear sings at his strongest at times, reaching the bar he set on songs like Benfica on his solo album "Tomboy", on songs like "New Town Burnout" and "Rosie Oh". Avey Tare is still his raw self with his occasional sporadic screams, but he is, like the harmonized vocals, more tasteful about when and how he explodes. Usually Avey Tare worked as the happier sounding man of the group, but here he is occasionally plagued by his past, including songs like "Father Time" and "Monkey Riches", the former where he yells "but didn't he pass a long time ago?" with such sadness, and the latter where he repeats "I don't wanna knock you down" with an escalating sense of emotion and meaning. Deakin debuts his first song as the lead vocalist with "Wide Eyed", and I think it's fantastic that he didn't try to emulate how his fellow band mates sing. It suits the mystique of the song, and works as a nice lead into the darker mid section of the album.
Overall, their singing is what should be expected but is still fresh and exciting, and their lyrics follow the same lines. They have stuck to their usual talents without going too far outside of the box, and so their identities remain intact. // 10
Overall Impression: Going back to the live stream online, thousands, if not more, were excited for this release, myself included. We only had a bit of an idea as to how the album would sound with the leaked songs "Today's Supernatural" (the first single) and "Applesauce" (somehow someone got a hold of this song and uploaded it). Both of those songs are two of the happier songs on the album, so we weren't exposed to the full emotional depth that this album explores.
September 19th was the big day. We were teased with various mixes that the band members each uploaded once a week, every Sunday, until this very night. Geologist put up his mix and following right after, as if the mix were an opening act, the main event happened. The album was streamed in full with video clips for each song (provided by Avey Tare's sister). The clips, like the album, seemed like an other worldly take on earthly transmissions, as each video had many television clips pieced together with abstract imagery, ranging from stop motion retelling to clever editing to piece clips together that wouldn't normally work otherwise. That wasn't the important part. What was was the album; one of which united Animal Collective fans around the world to one spot at the exact same time. At the very end of the album, once "Amanita" whirls into a droning end of a sound wave, thousands, if not millions, of us were left with three big words on the video clip glaring right at us: End of transmission. That alone was an indescribable feeling that echoed throughout the internet for days after, as each person shared that same exciting experience for the most part.
For those who were tuned in for this gorgeous stream, one of the better methods of streaming an album I have ever seen, the official release of "Centipede Hz" works, again, in favor of the apparent concept because it now feels like a recorded take of this bizarre transmission we all witnessed, as if it were live breaking news on our televisions, and it was captured for all of us to witness again. For those who did not check out this event, the album still works really well because it acts as not only a new release from one of the more consistent bands of our time but also one of their best, if not possibly their best. I still think "Merriweather Post Pavilion" is one of the best releases of the past decade, but this album comes dangerously close to having wowed me even more so. Once I heard "Merriweather Post Pavilion" a few times, I got it. I knew what it was about for the most part, and I would revisit these ideas and themes all of the time. With "Centipede Hz", I'm not entire sure. Each time I listen, I discover something new sound wise and thematically.
Before I get yelled at (if I won't already for the length of this review) for this comparison, remember that this is not a comparison of legacy or talent but of other means. Having said that, "Centipede Hz" could very be Animal Collective's "Sgt. Peppers" or their "Smile" (or both). Like the former, this album has this sense of an invented identity and their take on various themes of excitement ("Mr. Kite" and "Today's Supernatural", anyone?), as well as a sense of melodrama and everyday depression ("New Town Burnout" rings an eerily similar message to that of "A Day In The Life"; one of questioning ones own position in life and its burdens/normalcy). Like the latter, this album is a constant stream of consciousness, where moments of the album praise and yet question even the same topics at times. Are the lyrics on "Centipede Hz" critical, or are they cautionary? Do they forgive, or do they dismiss? It's different each time depending on how you feel.
This album is the best of the year for me, by far. It's not like this year has even been weak with music, either. We've had our fair share of great releases so far, ranging from Gojira, Purity Ring, Passion Pit, Beach House, and more. Still, "Centipede Hz", not just for its initial experience on Animal Collective's online radio station, is pretty much insurmountable at this point. No album has deserved a perfect rating quite like this one has this year. It's catchy, it's moving, it's memorable, it's effortless to listen to. I've heard it well over fifteen times since its initial stream and I still cannot believe that it is close to an hour long in length. From the initial heavy hits that "Moonjock" pushes right at you, to the final ringing in "Amanita", everything in between falls into place so well. The transitions are so smooth, they're invisible at times. Each time the album ends, I want to witness either this bizarre "transmission", or this fantastic album, again and again. "Centipede Hz", case in point, is arguably the best listening experience you can have of 2012. // 10