“What’s nice about staying on the same pace?” sang Animal Collective vocalists Panda Bear and Avey Tare on 2009’s “Fall Be Kind” EP. This sentiment neatly sums up Animal Collective’s attitude toward their music. Over the past decade, they’ve gone from the 10-minute two-chord drones of “Sung Tongs” to the transcendent psychedelic pop of the masterpiece “Merriweather Post Pavilion” in a gradual progression that has never felt forced.
On “Centipede Hz,” their ninth studio album, the band continues this progression, with mixed results. Most of the content has already been debuted at the band’s live shows, and the album reflects this—any of these songs could easily fill a packed stadium with its sound. But what works live doesn’t always carry over to the studio well, and “Centipede Hz” crushes you like a steamroller—its density and energy leave you feeling exhausted rather than invigorated.
If there’s one thing Animal Collective does well within albums, it’s picking a sound and sticking to it. Where “Strawberry Jam” was humid and sharp-edged, and where “Merriweather” was warm and oceanic, “Centipede Hz” is raw and electric. The percussion clatters noisily, unsourceable electronic sounds drift in and out, and the vocals frequently sound like they’ve been sung through a box fan.
The sound they’ve chosen this time doesn’t lend itself well to variety, so the songs bleed together, a problem that has never plagued Animal Collective’s past releases. The arrangements are unrelenting in their volume and density—by the end of the lengthy 53-minute runtime, it’s hard to remember specific moments of the album. Where previous albums felt like the band had invited you in and showed you around their home, “Centipede Hz” feels like an unending house party—it’s fun for a bit, but soon you get tired of the sweat and movement and you just want some fresh air.
It’s possible that the band intended to overwhelm—the radio-clip transitions seem to suggest the sensory overload of the iPhone age, while the lyrics speak broadly of alienation. But if that’s the case, then they ironically fall victim to the same noisiness that they’re trying to comment on.
“Mercury Man” opens with the line, “Sounds like machines talking to me on the phone / I say but they don’t quite get me”—a powerful sentiment that nonetheless gets lost under layers of chaotic drums and washy synths. A similar fate befalls “New Town Burnout,” whose punchy organ and staccato vocals start off promisingly but soon reveal that they haven’t left themselves anywhere to go.
The lyrics on “Centipede Hz” are some of the best they’ve penned—few bands can write about subjects as pedestrian as cars and hiking trips with Animal Collective’s earnest, wild-eyed fascination. But each song is so tightly packed with words that few of the lines have much chance to sink in—and besides, they generally get swallowed in the mix anyway.
Even though the album as a whole falls short of past releases, the fact that “Centipede Hz” still has some great tracks is a testament to the band’s creative ability. “Today’s Supernatural,” the album’s first single, is a proper banger, on par with “My Girls” from “Merriweather” or “For Reverend Green” from “Strawberry Jam” in energy and accessibility. However, it’s darker and more aggressive than either of those songs, finishing with a throat-rending Avey scream over a spectacular aural plane crash.
Guitarist Deakin makes his vocal debut on “Wide Eyed,” another standout track. His voice is more casual than either Panda’s or Avey’s, but it is strong in its own right, and it works well with unassuming lyrics about pregnancy and fatherhood.
After the towering heights AnCo reached with 2009’s “Merriweather”—widely hailed as one of the best albums of the last decade—they could have done one of two things. They could have made Merriweather 2.0, tempting but uninteresting. Or they could have taken a left turn and veered into unknown territory. They chose the latter, and while the results are somewhat disappointing, at least they’ve chosen motion over stagnancy.
—Staff writer Matthew Watson can be reached at email@example.com.