Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW & DISCUSSION: Animal Collective - Centipede Hz

Centipede Hz is the new album from Animal Collective. While we could have had only one person review it as usual, we at YPOIW decided to push boundaries and make this review a back-and-forth discussion between four of our writers: Alex, Mark, Nick, and Steve. This record is one of the biggest releases of the year, and we wanted to give you, the reader, a well-rounded perspective on what we liked and disliked about it. Enjoy!

STEVE: To kick things off, let’s briefly talk about our respective histories with Animal Collective. How did you get into them? What are your favorite Animal Collective records? What were your expectations going into Centipede Hz?

ALEX: When Merriweather Post Pavilion came out, I was 15 years old and, despite having only been into independent music for less than a year, I understood what a monumental release it was. Not because of its surprise commercial success, or how it (in some people's minds) delivered on what Animal Collective had been building to since their career began (hell, I had a tenuous at best idea of what "indie" in the 21st century meant at the time). I understood the gravity of its release because of its songs. Songs like the bouncy "Summertime Clothes," the melodically masterful "My Girls," and the ecstatic and chaotic "Brother Sport" shattered my ideas of what psychedelia could be. It still remains my favorite Animal Collective record.

Going into Centipede Hz, my expectations were moderately high. While I certainly would've been disappointed by an uninspired carbon copy of Merriweather Post Pavilion, reading interviews where the band stated they were going in a more rock-oriented direction on Centipede Hz as opposed to the pop-infused phantasmagoria of MPP did slightly reduce my expectations. I do enjoy rocking out to the messy psychedelic rock found on Strawberry Jam; just not as much as I enjoy swimming through the mystical and melodic waters of MPP.

STEVE: I should fess up right away that I'm filling the role of obligatory Animal Collective detractor. I harbor no ill will against the band or its fans, but I've never heard them as the paragon of modern experimental pop and the champion of modern indiedom that other people hear. For example, Merriweather Post Pavilion sounded to me like a surfeit of reverb drowning potentially good songs, which were further obscured by an obnoxious mess of sloppy psychedelic effects. It's not even that I think it's a bad album. I just find it unremarkable and a chore to listen to. In fact, that sentiment extends to most of Animal Collective's material. The notable exception is Sung Tongs, whose songs feel fun and weird without sounding like they've been chewed up, digested, and subsequently vomited out. I really like that album, but historically my taste and Animal Collective have not gotten along.

That said, I was looking forward to hearing Centipede Hz. Animal Collective do seem to try to do new things with each record, and I respect them for that. Also, maybe this record was going to be The One. The One that would fix my ears. The One that would take me by the hand and guide me into the warm glow of Animal Collective fandom.

(It wasn't.)

MARK: I got into Animal Collective a lot later than most people (mostly a result of me being ignorant to what good music was for the longest time), and when I did start listening to Animal Collective it took me a while to really get into them. I can still remember listening to albums like Campfire Songs and Here Comes the Indian and wondering why the hell hey were so renowned among music fans. Their popularity really became clear to me after hearing Sung Tongs and onward. With each record Animal Collective seemed to create something totally different than before while still making records that were distinctly their own.

My expectations going into Centipede Hz were fairly moderate until the album’s first single, "Today's Supernatural,” dropped. That song just has so much intensity and energy to it, on top of a complete mess of noisy chaos. It really appealed to what I was looking for in music at the time. So my expectations for the album went sky high for the same reason that Alex's expectations were lowered. I wanted to hear a more straight ahead and raw rock sound from Animal Collective, and I think that's what I ended up getting from them.

NICK: I guess you could call me the seasoned Animal Collective fan in this one. I've been a fan of them since they dropped Feels, and I've known about them since they started getting buzz for releasing Sung Tongs. Now, I’m not saying that I'm a huge fan of them or anything. I just find that their material is really consistent and original, and it always had me returning to them. The record Feels in particular stands out for me, in that it's a quieter and mellower side of Animal Collective that we rarely see. Pieces such as the long, almost ambient "Daffy Duck" and the strange, hazy "Bees" stand out for me as some of my all-time favourite Animal Collective tracks.

Records like Feels seem to be the antithesis of records like Here Comes the Indian, Strawberry Jam, and Centipede Hz. When I heard that Centipede Hz was going to be a return to their crazier rock band feel, I got pretty excited, seeing as Animal Collective haven't really explored that sound for about 5 years now. "Honeycomb" dropped earlier this year, and that was a positive step in the direction I wanted Animal Collective to go. Then "Today’s Supernatural" came out, which set my expectations high.

Then the record came out, and, despite my enjoyment, I couldn't help but feel a tad disappointed.

STEVE: Alright, we have a seasoned veteran, two slightly more casual fans, and one stick in the mud. Let's start talking about the album now.

One interesting thing about Centipede Hz was the method of its debut. Rather than wait for the inevitable leak, Animal Collective chose to play the entire album as part of their weekly internet radio show. Pre-release streams are becoming the norm, but this case was special. There was the implication that this would be a one-time-only thing, so Animal Collective fans everywhere flocked to their computers on Sunday night to listen to the album. I believe the three of you were able to experience this moment together, so I'd like to hear a bit about it.

What were your first impressions of the album? What were your thoughts on the use of the radio show as the means of revealing the album? Do you think the communal aspect of the experience had any effect on your initial perception of the music?

ALEX: By choosing to stream Centipede Hz on their internet radio show, accompanied with mind-bending visuals and special mixes from each of the band members, Animal Collective created an event that countless music nerds could get excited about. With the number of momentous cultural events noticeably lessening due to internet-enabled cultural subdivision, I made sure to be at my computer with my nice headphones when the stream began. Anxiously sitting through Geologist's mix (which was very interesting but totally insignificant in comparison to the main event) while chatting with many of the people who contribute to this blog really got me pumped up for the main course.

And what a main course it was. The second that opening track "Moonjock" kicked in, I knew I had made the right choice in skipping Breaking Bad (which happened to be playing at the same time). As the album played, I was bombarded with a menagerie of mutant melodies, unidentifiable sounds, and fantastic screams courtesy of Avey Tare, and all the while I was also mesmerized by the surreal visual snippets that played before me. I didn't understand much of what I was experiencing, but I was certainly enjoying it. It was quite the sensory overload, which might be why I gleaned the least out of that first listen and why subsequent listens revealed several new elements I enjoy and several new elements I dislike.

NICK: The full stream was a great idea. Getting a lot of people to listen to the same thing at the same time was like the old days of street parties, with DJs spinning records for a bunch of people who had never heard them before. Geologist's mix before the album stream was also kinda reminiscent of that. At first, while listening to the stream, I was thinking "Wow, this may be the best Animal Collective album yet!" Everything was so colourful, textured and layered. It was during "Monkey Riches" that the conversation went from "Oh this is a good song" to "Oh my god, song of the year, SONG OF THE YEAR.” People were just freaking out and spurting Animal Collective related memes.

STEVE: That sounds pretty much how I expected the stream to go down, and that's why I avoided it. In part, it was because I had my priorities straight and wanted to watch Breaking Bad, but I also didn't want my first experience with the album to be in a communal setting (either with you guys on Skype or with /mu/), especially one which would be whipped up into an animal-like frenzy. One of two things would have happened: 1) I would have been swept into the hysteria of adoration for the album, or 2) my contrarian tendencies would have caused me to hate the album for all the wrong reasons. My ideal method of record consumption involves only me and the music. It's obvious that I love talking about music after the fact, but I think the act of listening, and listening for the first time, should be a more private affair. I'm an impressionable individual.

Ten days after the stream, I listened to Centipede Hz by myself, and even I succumbed to some communal involvement by live-tweeting my reactions (to be fair, I wanted to force myself think and write about my first impression, and Twitter’s a good vehicle for that). When it was over, I thought the album was okay--not too bad, not too good, just riding the median. Further listens better illuminated the parts I liked and the parts which made the album fundamentally flawed.

I noted that the reception after the stream seemed to be exceptionally positive, but as time went on and as reviews were published, the consensus became increasingly mixed. Now, I don't think anybody can say for sure why that happened (could be an effect of the album itself, or due to the communal stream and its psychological aspects, or simply that we're looking at different samples of different people), but I think it’s worth noticing the shift in people’s reactions.

NICK: The reception was obviously caused by the hype. You don't go into a record, especially one as big as Centipede Hz, without prior expectations. People say they might, but you just can't.

When I listened to the stream, I thought that the music was so textured and so layered. But as time went on and I relistened, all the supposed depth and texture really seemed to be there more for show than actual addition to the music. I think that's why the publications (especially those who released their reviews early) gave the "good but not great" scores they did. They had given Centipede Hz more listens and already had discovered what some of us are only now realising.

By the end of the year I might even end up agreeing with them.

MARK: I thought the stream was a great idea. In an age when most albums are released by means of a leak on the internet, Animal Collective decided to be proactive and take the release of this album into their own hands. I'd like to see more of streaming events like Animal Collective's happen, but I'm not sure that many other bands would create enough buzz to get people to tune in. Overall, I think the stream was a good way to make listening to the album exciting, which is exactly what I want music to be about.

I thought the album was fantastic on first listen, and I still think it's fantastic today. For me, the mark of a great album is one that makes me want to listen to it over and over again, and Centipede Hz does that. I find it amazing that after only one listen I had parts of songs whose names I couldn't even remember stuck in my head.

As for how dense Centipede Hz sounds... it's dense as hell. Often, I'll try to pick apart what I'm listening to, but it's so difficult to do with Centipede Hz because there is so much going on. I love being able to turn this album on and be overwhelmed with sound It's something that I can personally lose myself in.

STEVE: Nick, thanks for bringing up that word "hype." Hype is a funny thing that can help or harm an album's reception, but hype was especially potent for the Centipede Hz stream. It's not unusual for so much excitement to build around an upcoming album, especially one coming from a band of such great magnitude, but to have so much hype build around a specific moment in time is unusual for music. The stream, in that respect, was like a midnight showing for a blockbuster film. Watching a film while surrounded by hundreds of other people who have been dying to see it provides an experience which is very different from seeing the same movie in a half-empty theater a few weeks later.

Mark, the density of Centipede Hz is something I've heard a lot of fans praise, but I don't think its sound is all that remarkable. I'll grant, there's a variety of different shit going on in each song, and my ears might be desensitized by my love of other bands who take the "everything including the kitchen sink" approach to arrangement, but the album sounds sloppy to me. All of the weird samples and effects are admirable in their inclusion, but not so much in their execution. One of my pet peeves with Animal Collective has been their preference for interesting noises over interesting notes. I can understand why people would be attracted to the former, but on Centipede Hz the noises don't sound like they have a rhyme or reason behind them. The slapdash construction feels superficial and detracts from these songs.

Imagine you have two toddlers and a box of crayons, and you tell each kid to draw a picture using all of the crayons. One toddler makes one big ugly brown circle in the center of the paper, and the other one draws a scene that's messy and childish, but still vibrant and colorful. Centipede Hz sounds more like a big ugly brown circle to me.

ALEX: Steve, in my opinion, the greatest strength of Centipede Hz is its punchiness. Every cymbal crash and synth surge of "Moonjock" has a powerful sense of impact, and the arpeggio at the core of lead single "Today's Supernatural" sucks me into its own universe (which feels a lot like Count von Count's castle but on acid) like no other song has done all year. In addition, the explosive sound tapestry found on album standout "Monkey Riches" perfectly complements Avey Tare's impassioned screams, which Animal Collective fans love so much.

The density of sonic shit that you mention only enhances the songs that I've just mentioned, providing them with interesting passages and textures. Conversely, this claustrophobic construction does tons of irreparable damage to the more underwritten songs on Centipede Hz. The Deakin-penned "Wide Eyed" is a torturously monotonous loop cheaply decorated by sounds desperately trying to add dynamism to a lifeless song. The song following it, "Father Time" feels equally uninspired. Whenever I listen to the track, I envision Animal Collective opening a folder of insipid and failed sonic bits, stuffing them into a sausage casing, and creating the most undesirable sausage known to man. I have no qualms about publicly decrying those songs as absolute garbage.

Overall, I think Animal Collective's dense, spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to sound arrangement works best as a technique to enhance fully-developed songs and not as a means to cut corners with unfinished ideas.

MARK: I think you nailed your assessment. Centipede Hz hits hard in ways that Merriweather Post Pavilion never even came close to doing. Hearing Avey scream just brings a smile to my face.

While I do love this album, it definitely isn't perfect. Like Alex said, "Wide Eyed" is a complete dud due to its monotony. I'm not all that fond of "Pulleys" either. Even though Centipede Hz does have its low points, I feel like its high points are so astronomically high that I can ignore a couple uninteresting tracks. "Moonjock", "Today's Supernatural", "Applesauce", "Monkey Riches" and "Amanita" have all stuck with my since my first listen. I think those tracks are a colorful mess as opposed to an ugly brown circle. I realize that it's probably tough for some people to overlook a few tracks that aren't really up to par with the rest of the album, and on most other albums I'd agree with that sentiment, but on Centipede Hz I can put up with it because I think the payoff is huge.

STEVE: For me, much of the album's "punchiness" is undermined by a lack of dynamic range. If everything is punchy, nothing stands out. I'm not expecting Avey Tare to start crooning sweet nothings to me, but there is not one moment when Centipede Hz lets up and allows itself to breathe. I like noise and cacophony as much as the next guy, but they're so much more effective and powerful when they can be compared to a base line which isn't just a few fractions of a decibel quieter, or a few bells and whistles short of the full arrangement. An unceasingly in-your-face approach is not musical ADD; it's musical OCD.

And I have to laugh, because we seem to be pouncing on each other's favorite parts of the album! "Wide Eyed" is actually the best song, precisely because it sticks out like a sore thumb. First, I prefer Deakin's vocals a hundred times over the way Avey gargles water every time he opens his mouth. Second, I agree that the track is arguably the simplest in terms of structure and arrangement, but that works in its favor. It doesn't feel claustrophobic, and, by letting the song dominate over the effects, it best achieves the hypnotic, infectious quality that I hear so many people commend Animal Collective for. This quality also extends into "Father Time," which similarly eschews some of the more ridiculous sonic wizardry and ungracious breaks in structure to deliver a simple, pleasant, and effective song. Much of Centipede Hz sounds like a band flailing their arms, trying to catch a bird far out of reach. The moments when they reel it back ever so slightly, perhaps to sit on a bench and spread some birdseed, are their most successful moments.

Meanwhile, Alex, I can take your sentence about "Wide Eyed" and apply it word-for-word to my feelings on "Monkey Riches." The track bores and annoys me. It's a charade of dynamism. It might have worked with different production--production that would allow the song's climax to feel like a climax and not just a slightly louder and busier part of the song--but as it is, it feels like a 7-minute trip down a flight of stairs.

NICK: I gotta agree with Steve on both "Wide Eyed" and "Monkey Riches". I really enjoy the former's almost Indian-flavoured melodies and the warped desert feel of the track, but "Monkey Riches" was way too long and way too full of weird sounds with not enough melody, song progression, or overall memorability.

Overall I agree with mostly what's been said. On Centipede Hz, Animal Collective didn't let the songs breathe or glide as effortlessly as they did on Feels and Merriweather Post Pavilion, making the mix of the tracks sound overly busy, distracting and self-indulgent. Not saying I hate the record--far from it. The melodies in tracks like "Amanita" and "Applesauce" are some of my favourite Animal Collective melodies, and "Applesauce" in particular will probably appear on my top tracks of 2012 list. It's just that Animal Collective shine the brightest when they effortlessly bridge the gap between weirdness and accessibility, and it didn't feel effortless on Centipede Hz. They tried too hard to do what usually comes natural to them. Maybe they were trying to make the tracks weird for weirdness' sake, or maybe they just needed a way to hide their half cooked song ideas, but this one fell short of what they usually do.

The more I listen, the more I seem to find it pales in comparison to nearly every other Animal Collective record, even Strawberry Jam, which I've cooled on since its release (it was my favourite of 07 that year). People are calling Animal Collective no longer relevant, and I disagree; this is just a misstep. I don't think they've run out of steam quite yet, and they can bounce back and make a record which can wow us again.

STEVE: Let's finish with some closing thoughts:

Centipede Hz is an album of good ideas executed poorly. It has the glossy veneer of ambition, but that easily peels away to reveal an oozing, bulbous, fleshy mess of a record. And people can like it for being a huge mess, but I think even Animal Collective have constructed messes which sound more exciting and less pandering than this one. There's a crucial lack of discipline on Centipede Hz. The best chaos is organized (look no further than Death Grips), and the best chaotic records are those which reveal themselves to you gradually, listen by listen. Those records invite you in, play coy with you, and teach you how to listen to them. Centipede Hz is the loud guy at a party who spills beer on your shirt and never lets anybody else get a word in edgewise.

Score: Lite 5. I don't hate the album, and there are songs I like ("Wide Eyed," "Father Time," "Mercury Man"), but its positives and negatives balance evenly.

And just so I can be somewhat constructive, here are some albums you can listen to instead of or complementary to Centipede Hz:
  • Max Tundra's Parallax Error Beheads You (if you like happy music with strange, dense production)
  • of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping (if you like songs with jarring tonal shifts and structural upheavals that actually sound like they have a purpose)
  • Field Music's Plumb (again, if you like songs that are inconstant motion from one idea to the next, but that don't waste your time with pointless meandering)
  • Shiina Ringo's Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana (if you like pop/rock music with a heavy dose of fucking weirdness that doesn't undermine the strength of the songs)
  • World's End Girlfriend's Seven Idiots (if you really want to hear how twisted and indulgent a pop album can become)

ALEX: I think it's important to note the difference between carefully constructed chaotic albums and chaotic albums assembled in a more slapdash fashion. While I greatly enjoy both, I feel they operate towards different ends. As rewarding as the former can be, they often times feel a bit counterintuitive upon repeated listens because through the process of careful construction, the chaos that makes the album interesting is often times diminished so all the disparate elements "work," so to speak. However rooted music is in patterns and theory, it's important not to overlook the creative potential of reckless abandon in music or any artistic discipline for that matter.

While Animal Collective has made a habit of consistently stepping out of their comfort zones throughout their career, I feel that on Centipede Hz the band took a more audacious approach to songwriting and arrangement. Did this tactic lead to some missteps? Yes and it'd be wrong for me to not acknowledge that they do bring the album down. "Wide Eyed" might stand out from the pack but it stands out like "Octopus's Garden" does on Abbey Road as a lackluster, underdeveloped song from a lesser songwriter. I suggest that Deakin should learn the difference between a loop and a song before he pursues any future solo ventures lest he wishes to remain the group's Ringo forever. Overall though, Animal Collective's impetuousness led to a fantastic group of songs that sticks out from the rest of their oeuvre for the incredible sense of impact they each carry.

Score: Lite 7. The first four tracks on the record are solid as hell (Pand Bear deserves more praise for the melody on "Rosie Oh") with "Monkey Riches" and "Amanita" standing out as exemplary as well.

MARK: For me, at the very moment that Centipede Hz was released, a chaotic mess was what I needed, and luckily that's what I ended up getting. Careful or reckless, purposeful or not, what I was looking for from Animal Collective this time around were sounds more so than songs. As it turns out, even though the sounds that I wanted were there, they came with a number of amazingly bombastic songs with a number of catchy melodies.

I'll again agree with Alex that there are some definite missteps on this album, but for me those missteps only keep Centipede Hz from being near perfection. The best thing about Animal Collective is that they take risks with their music. As can be seen by this discussion, those risks can both draw listeners in and push listeners away. The point is that you won't ever hear Animal Collective rest on their laurels, which I think is incredibly admirable.

Score: Lite 9. I loved the hell out of this, and aside from a couple of tracks this album hit the spot for me perfectly.

NICK: With me being the one who seems to have followed the band the most, this record came as somewhat of a disappointment. Refinement isn't a word I'd often use on Animal Collective, but that's exactly what Centipede Hz needed. If they stepped back, and stripped it down, maybe even slowed the tempo a tad, they could have made something amazing, instead, it merely ended up being merely good in the standards of Animal Collective.

Score: Decent 8. Best tracks: Moonjock, Applesauce, Wide Eyed, Amanita

STEVE: And there you have it. I’d like to thank Alex, Mark, and Nick for indulging in this idea and making it work. In the comments, let us know whom you agree with, or let us know if we all got it wrong. You can also follow the writers at their respective Twitters.

Steve: @vestenet

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. For me listening to this album has been crazy as shit. First I was so overwhelmed that I actually got slightly bored because it was hard to focus on what I was hearing. But over time the beautiful melodies and harmonies began to reveal themselves. Some of the melodies really remind me of The Shins. At this point after 10 listens or so I find myself really loving this album. I do agree that the album needs a little breathing room which animal collective is really good at. I thought the single, "gotham" before the album showed their ability to write an amazing song that also had some breathing room in parts. In essence, I am continually amazed at how much I enjoy and am inspired by Animal Collective's music