I was a freshman in high school when Merriweather Post Pavilion came out and awed millions with electronic melodies imbued with nature vibes and hooks that still resound off the inside walls of heads today. For a fourteen-year-old or person of any age, this was and is the gateway album for understanding the impulse-turned-compositions of a group of very talented musicians, ranging from their albums Sung Tongs, to Feels, and to Strawberry Jam. Now I am a freshman in college listening to something very different. Soon after the release of the newest album Centipede Hz, I looked at the ratings, and they were not promising. I couldn’t know what to expect since I didn’t want to read one review in entirety and spoil my first listen. Because of the mixed reviews, I had a feeling that this would be a step away from the Animal Collective most people are used to. So to better comprehend it, I chose to learn the story behind the album’s creation.
AC has been together for over a decade, and it’s becoming harder and harder for this band to stay together. This is not due to drugs or alcohol or conflicting personalities, but due to the fact that the members now have their own families with children and live as far apart as Los Angeles and Portugal. Despite the schedules and distances the musicians returned to their Baltimore origins, including member Josh Dibb, better known as Deakin, who hasn’t contributed since 2007’s Strawberry Jam. Not only were the four close to home, but also they convened nearly every day for three months to create the album—a very different process from the concentrated, short periods of time that produced many of their previous works. Never short of inspiration, AC returned home musically as well by going back to experimental roots.
The band agreed to create an album based upon the idea of creating a sort of radio show, a sonic landscape made by an alien band. With its ambient quality best listened to through headphones, it bears practically no resemblance to Merriweather Post Pavilion. This time, the group made an active decision to abandon the background sounds of insects, bugs, animals, and nature and instead made it seem as though the music was recorded inside a control room picking up various extraterrestrial transmissions. The writing was unplanned, and the cacophonous sounds were recorded without headphones, captured all together in the studio. Spindly, multilayered melodies travel through space and are diffused through the ears with textured colors like paisley-neon-calico-speckled-rainbow. More concisely, the music is beautiful but not easy to listen to.
As a whole, the album is difficult to analyze and I found myself experiencing moments of delight soon followed by confusion. It starts out forcefully with solid percussion, enticing the listener into what AC has new to offer with the radio concept. Apart from “Pulleys”, which sounds vaguely creepy and Halloween-like or the upbeat “Applesauce” there is very little variation in the songs and the strident fast-paced tempo remains near constant in the 50 album’s fifty minutes. Some individual songs are well worth the listen and have refrains that could only be made by Panda Bear or Avery Tare in their best of form, and the song “Amanita” lends a satisfying end to a whirlwind of an album. Stepping away from a song-by-song basis, the vocals are not quite as strong and the music is challenging and not for someone who is new to AC.
Very much like its radio inspiration, Centipede Hz is an album where music clashes and comes in innumerable forms, and where the songs can be put in any order. It’s difficult to get to the heart, but I could very well find myself hearing one of the songs in my head, distilled from its blender of an album. It is an album very much the product of its circumstances, with the band members reuniting and madly making music in their forge-studio to create great heavy slabs of songs. The complicated recording process is a likely cause, since the album was recorded not only on tape but also from the original soundboards. The end product occasionally seems overworked and laborious.
Despite mixed reception, Avery Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin recognized the fact that they did not try to recreate Merriweather Post Pavilion and didn’t bend over to continue the mass appeal that of that pop-oriented album. Of course the group wants fans to enjoy this album just as much, but they remain fast to their own creative juices and not the demands of others. Because of this, Centipede Hz feels like true Animal Collective traveling through an uncharted and unseen part of space. Though the group has been together for the vast majority of my own existence, they never cease to evolve. In fact, they are finally making efforts towards at last establishing an Animal Collective website. The most recent album may not be a step forward, but it is a step in some direction that can only lead to something remarkable.