New Animal Collective album incomparable to last

By Benjamin Finn

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Since Animal Collective’s last album, fans have eagerly been awaiting the release of the band’s ninth studio album, “Centipede Hz,” which dropped in stores the beginning of this month.

The quality of this album may surprise you, though.

In 2009, Animal Collective released the seminal “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” a blissful, euphoric meditation of domestic life, love and the joys of being human.

Apart from attracting leagues of new followers, it practically ushered in a musical movement all its own: Collages of ethereal noise and programming over aquatic beats, augmented with those heavenly vocal harmonies.

As staggering an accomplishment as it was, it felt definitive; like a distillation of all the band’s fundamental elements and quirks, and it made us wonder where Animal Collective could possibly go from there.

Three years later, we’ve been delivered “Centipede Hz,” and in true Animal Collective fashion, it confounds expectations and sounds entirely unlike its predecessor.

While it is every bit as detailed and colorful as “Pavilion,” it possesses a far more sinister, anxious soul; hissing electronics, squealing guitars and a collection of intergalactic samples and radio identifications come from all corners.

Avey Tare (David Portner) stated in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year of the band’s desire to make “this alien atmosphere” that feels “up in space, on a spaceship.” And while the record certainly imagines a foreign, alien space all its own, the lyrical content is unmistakably human.

“Centipede Hz” is like a hovercraft slowly orbiting Earth and studying its inhabitants; it sounds alienating, but there is a rich humanity that is seeping through here, which makes the album so enduring.

This album shouldn’t work on paper, but it is made infinitely more digestible by the band’s return to more traditional songwriting and live performance.

Geologist’s (Brian Weitz) whirring keyboards, samplers and sequencers continue to dazzle, Panda Bear’s (Noah Lennox) insistent drumming propels most of these songs with a relentless intensity at breakneck speed, while Deakin’s (Josh Dibb) return to the band translates to more prominent guitar lines.

Avey Tare manages most of the songwriting and vocals here, foregoing the communal feel and harmonic interplay with Panda Bear on ‘Pavilion,’ which serves to both benefit and hinder the record.

Avey Tare has always been the more abrasive of Animal Collective’s vocalists, and while his long-winded emoting works on most of these tracks, it can become grating when over-used, and it occasionally points to more under-developed ideas here.

He dominates tracks like the nostalgic “Moonjock” and the deliriously manic “Today’s Supernatural.” However, in the fourth track, “Applesauce,” while there is a load of interesting melodic ideas, the song suffers from an incoherent structure and Avey Tare’s vocals ramble for too long.

By comparison, the song “Pulleys” sounds underdeveloped, and not even his vocals can save the track. His dominance also comes at the expense of hearing more of Panda Bear, whose background harmonizing and sunny presence is sorely missed on many of the tracks.

However, when the band hits its stride, it is truly a sight to behold.

The terrific opening duo of “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural,” and the four-song streak from “Wide Eyed” to “Monkey Riches” is astounding. “Wide Eyed,” featuring the first lead vocal performance from Deakin, is a celestial ode to a mother-to-be, expressing true “wide-eyed” wonder at the whole situation.

“Father Time” is one of the bounciest, catchiest tunes the band has penned since “Pavillion’s’” “My Girls,” which becomes quite alarming when its subject matter is taken into consideration.

“New Town Burnout” provides a much-needed dosage of Panda Bear, and his honeyed voice aches and trembles with anxiety and longing for his family over liquid guitars and skittering beats.

This trio leads into the album’s overly frantic, dizzying centerpiece, “Monkey Riches,” a wonderfully psychedelic and claustrophobic piece of existential frenzy and uneasiness; perfectly arranged by way of magnificent production and a winning performance from Avey Tare.

On the album closer, “Amanita,” Avey Tare and Panda Bear share a rare moment together, lamenting “What have we done / Fantasy is falling down.” It serves to epitomize their sudden fame in the wake of “Pavilion,” and it also represents the fact that they just destroyed all of its influence in the 10 previous tracks.

While it’s not without its pitfalls, “Centipede Hz” still adheres to Animal Collective’s winning philosophy of wringing vivid emotion and exuberance out of unlikely places. Even though their songwriting stumbles occasionally, they still manage to create engaging, intriguing compositions; all of which bare that idiosyncratic stamp only Animal Collective could give.

It certainly doesn’t reach for the heavens like “Pavilion,” but instead is perfectly content with being grounded by the frailty, anxiety and distress of modern life; subjects that its predecessor wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

For that reason, ‘Centipede Hz’ ends up being the most challenging, dense, visceral and bravest Animal Collective album yet.

Benjamin Finn can be reached at [email protected]