By Russell Warfield
Even as I heard Merriweather Post Pavilion for the first time (and we all, if you’ll pardon the expression, remember our first time) I was already wondering what Animal Collective were going to do next. Animal Collective are a notoriously restless bunch, who take two steps sideways for every three steps forwards. And what’s all the more exhilarating – up until this point in their career anyway – is how it becomes harder and harder to envision where Animal Collective could possibly go next; it sounding as if they’ve hit their zenith (dare I say, alternative music’s zenith full stop) with each new release, yet somehow managing to simultaneously smash their own apparently non-existent glass ceiling and pull a complete U-turn with whatever game-changing move they play next.
For a band who likes to defy expectations, my initial guess (my initial fear) was that Animal Collective would somewhat contrarily put out something impenetrably experimental and cloying in response to the beamingly crossover material of MPP. Thankfully, if that was indeed sloshing around their system, it seems to have dissipated through not-quite-follow-up projects like ODDSAC and Transverse Temporal Gyrus. Instead, Centipede Hz marks perhaps the shortest chasm between any consecutive releases in the Animal Collective discography – not sounding particularly Merriweather-ish per se, but offering up another goo of similarly swirling colour and big hearted wonder.
That’s not to say Centipede Hz isn’t a far, far more difficult album than its predecessor, though. Indeed, to completely oversimplify (as if Animal Collective allow music critics to do anything else in their descriptions), Centepede Hz splits the difference between the thorny, stormy freak-out of their early period organic instrumentation arrangements, and the accessible structures of their more recent sample based electronica, as well as reintroducing the band’s penchant for meandering, opaqueness and inhospitality. And it is, ultimately, to be frank, the first album in what feels like a long, long run from Animal Collective which sounds like they’re, if not exactly coming down the other side of their perpetually upward trajectory, then at least plateauing for the time being.
It makes a fucking good first impression though. The first three rhythmic stabs of ‘Moonjock’ were all it took for me to prematurely think ‘Jesus Christ in reverse – they’ve done it’. With Panda back behind the kit and Deacon back in the fold, the band immediately establish a slightly new feel for themselves – as is their wont – and as Avey’s jumped up “lean on it, lean on it” hook moves into its unbelievably energising coda of shout-along refrain, Animal Collective seem perfectly on course to continue the pattern of a lifetime: complete reinvention, and complete innovation.
But, sadly, it’s an intensity they seem unable (or even unwilling) to sustain. And indeed, it’s not surprising that they couldn’t. The album hinges on a conflation of sprawling, often shapeless vocal turns (almost all of these songs, interestingly, are Avey jams, with only two from Panda, and one even more formless offering from Deacon) awkwardly spread over the top of arrangements, which hit staggering new levels of tightly packed hyper-density, sadly sporting all the unwelcome compression of Strawberry Jam rather than the wondrous space and throbbing low-end of MPP.
And while there’s highs – of course there are highs – in the form of tracks like the darling and sugar-rushed ‘Applesauce’ or the uplifting coda of ‘Amanita’, the sad fact is that there’s almost nothing here which makes you want to reach for the repeat button on the first listen, nor add them to your internal ‘best of Animal Collective’ tracklist on the tenth. To be sure, at heart it’s still Animal Collective, with all their fierce creativity, mind boggling invention and childlike enthusiasm – and so a disappointment from Animal Collective is still frequently more engaging (or at the very least more interesting) than a lot of bands’ successes. But nevertheless, there’s no getting away from it: this is their least well-defined offering in some years, and will most likely be looked back upon as a transitory stepping stone leading them to whatever they do next.