What’s your favorite iteration of Animal Collective? It’s a tough question for both fans and detractors of the band to answer because so few groups have made such a sport out of changing so rapidly while still retaining the primary qualities that either attracted or repelled people in the first place. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out which version of Animal Collective the band itself wants to be and, perhaps more so than all its other albums, the band’s newest record, Centipede Hz, is a testament to that. There’s a sense of play at work in the best Animal Collective songs, and the tracks collected on Centipede Hz are some of the group’s most rambunctious to date.
Tasked with the unenviable task of following-up their critically acclaimed breakthrough from 2009, Merriweather Post Pavilion, it sounds as though the group members decided to follow both their pop instincts and their love of sonic clutter. Though Avey Tare (David Portner) has often served as the primary songwriter and singer, this is the album where he takes center stage, anchoring the album’s best songs with his aching wails and wild screams. If he was the thing that pushed you away from the group’s non Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) offerings, well, stay away from this one because this is a very Avey-centric affair. He still sings like he suffers from IBS, and the group’s lyrics are still the type of goofy, starry-eyed musings that will probably inspire some really embarrassing tattoos for millennials to hide from their children years from now (“Why am I still looking for a Golden Age?” is this year’s “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things”). If Avey Tare sounded a bit subdued or reigned in on Merriweather, here he sounds as vernal and rabid as ever.
The album opens with its most confrontational moment, the booming NASA-goes-dubstep jam “Moonjock.” It’s the type of jackhammer beat that’s gonna sound pulverizing while blasting over summer festival fields if the band ever decides to play these songs on the road. Many critics explained the emphasis on rhythm and dance music textures on Merriweather by pointing to producer/engineer Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Matt And Kim). He’s behind the boards again this time, but this album seems like it’s almost trying to set the record straight: Animal Collective is not a rock band. It might be a jam band (2009′s Fall Be Kind EP made no bones about AC’s Grateful Dead love), but the band officially moved way beyond its strums-around-a-campfire, freak-folk origins into a digital space that’s all about hip-hop-indebted beats, samples and even—wait for it, wait for it—drops. You can still hear the bongos, but the guys have moved out of the dorm room and into a Daft Punk space pyramid in the sky.
That’s not to say the album is a full-on EDM makeover, but it isn’t the retreat to Guitar Center that some fans were perhaps hoping for. Single “Today’s Supernatural” is the closest the album comes to re-harnessing the giddy, abrasive noise-pop of 2007′s Strawberry Jam, and “Applesauce” wouldn’t sound completely out of place on the nostalgia-chasing swamp-rock of 2005′s Feels. In general these songs are volatile and shape-shifting, with a few detours for psychedelic lounge music (“Rosie Oh”) and new-wave-meets-XTC stomp (Deakin’s “Wide Eyed”). At times it feels like the group’s maximalist tendencies undermine the songs, turning potentially catchy choruses and infectious drum patterns into a soupy sludge of inert noodling (“Father Time” and “New Town Burnout”). Now that Animal Collective has shown flashes of expert songcraft, it’s simply not as gratifying to hear the group arrive at a middle ground.
Oddly enough, the most striking part of the record may be the transitions. The buildup to the album’s strongest track “Monkey Riches” is almost as thrilling as the song itself, as the clanking robo-rhythm assembles itself under the garbled static and warped radio sound effects. When the chorus finally arrives—a screaming howl from Portner that’s as cathartic as it is nonsensical—it cuts through all the loops and squishing electronics to deliver something primal. Like the band’s best moments it’s simultaneously silly and poignant, a grown man turning childlike babble into a churning, multifaceted tribal hymn. That’s my favorite version Animal Collective: the one that finds warped beauty amidst chaos. Hopefully on future outings they’ll find more beauty, less chaos.