Like observing a rainbow, or the site-specific sculpture art of the 1970s, Animal Collective’s music is intrinsically subjective, defined by the unique perspective of each listener. The band’s compositions are so intensely layered that each observer grasps hold of something different in the fray—perhaps it’s the pounding drums, or the wild, unhinged harmonies, or the orchestra of minute samples and sounds, all rolled into one living, breathing melody.
During the band’s 2005 Coachella set, the crowd had a wildly varied response to material from 2001’s Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. One fan stood transfixed, soaking up the crackling electronic cacophony, while the man next to him plugged his ears, actually in physical pain from the high pitched, jarring noises. The latter had to leave, unable to stand the sounds that had brought his companion such joy. The rest of the crowd fell somewhere in between, but most were swaying and singing along to nonsensical lyrics and hypnotic wails. This diversity of responses is what makes the band’s blend of noise, freak-folk, and rock so innovative.
Fans lined the block outside the Neptune Theater Friday night, chatting excitedly about their favorite eras of the band. A car stopped at the light, and two guys with tousled hair cranked the stereo, blasting “Who Could Win a Rabbit” from 2004’s Sung Tongs. The crowd cheered and the passengers danced in their seats. Once inside, the music piped through the house speakers recalled the Coachella attendee’s strife eleven years prior. One particularly abrasive song had a repeating sample of a glass shattering. A woman in the crowd remarked, “I don’t like this music . . . and it’s getting louder!” Her friend laughed in agreement, but it was only a taste of the strangeness in store. The stage was lined with giant statues of abstracted faces, and a giant projector threw a wash of color over these figures and the band members’ consoles. Animal Collective are often labeled “experimental” for their wild sounds, but in addition, they’re an experiential band. To know them is to have experienced the odd and beautiful effect their music has on the psyche, when an otherwise aggravating or dissonant noise can inspire joy or reverence.
The band members met at school in Baltimore, MD, and include David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin). On stage Friday night, Lennox and Portner shared vocal harmonies, mixing, and keyboards, and Weitz added further samples, mixing, and vocals, melding disparate elements at a board overflowing with cables. He wore a headlamp to see his boards (the origin of his alias) and the light whirled around while he danced. As one song slowly morphed into the next, he bobbed his head to the oncoming beat, comically at odds with the tempo the crowd could still hear. It’s no small wonder that the members can keep their heads on straight while performing such complex work.
Dibb was absent from the stage, as he’s currently working on his first solo release as Deakin. This meant the band was unlikely to play anything from 2007’s Strawberry Jam, or fan favorite “Wide Eyed” from 2012’s Centipede Hz. The set was heavy with songs from Painting With, released mere weeks ago, peppered with a few tracks from 2005’s Feels (“Loch Raven,” “Bees”) and 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (“Daily Routine”). Each of these earlier songs was met with a roar of approval from the crowd. Painting With takes the fearless complexity of Spirit, and updates it with the infectious pop sensibilities the band perfected on Merriweather with super-popular tracks like “My Girls.” The new album is an exciting addition to an already colorful and nuanced discography.
Despite their self-induced chaos, the band juggled completely disparate elements with poise and finesse. During “Summing the Wretch” from the new album, Portner and Lennox were able to stay in sync at breakneck speed, creating a stereo effect as notes ping-ponged back and forth between them. The drum timing changed frequently, making the mosh pit an entertaining sight as one jumping, flailing fan after another had to adjust their rhythm.
“Daily Routine” began with a hint of organ notes in the silence. These sped up slowly until they spiraled majestically, filling the air with an exultant array of cascading keys. Huge booms from a guest drummer lent a strong backbone, as Portner made syncopated hand claps into his mic. After a few verses from Lennox, the organ rocketed again, as projections transformed the room into a psychedelic, candy-colored cathedral. The organ cut out and an echoing, meditative guitar chord split the emptiness, easing the room back into quiet reflection. The crowd was stunned.
Openers Ratking from Brooklyn brought their blend of experimental hip hop, with influences as varied as Animal Collective, Death Grips, and Trash Talk. Frontman Patrick “Wiki” Morales rapped with a confident cadence reminiscent of mid-’80s MCs, with dub-style backup vocals and keys from Eric “Sporting Life” Adiele. Hakeem “Hak” Lewis appeared to be mixing both the music and visuals live. Wiki was very animated, jumping around while rapping impassioned lyrics. Plagued with technical difficulties halfway through “Piece of Shit,” he finished the song a capella, and the impressed crowd cheered him on. The night’s contrast in genres kept things interesting, and both acts shared the same innovative creativity.
Though their studio albums are impressive sonic voyages, Animal Collective need to be seen live. Here, it is the variety of listeners’ responses (whether to thrash around passionately, close their eyes, or sway lovingly) which gives meaning to the music. As with any avant-garde art, the work must be witnessed and interpreted by a myriad of perspectives in order to have a meaningful effect. With a captive audience at a sold out show on a rainy Friday night, Animal Collective were in their element.
Summing the Wretch
– ENCORE –
Bagels in Kiev