Centipede Hz is designed in part to sound like a radio station, but it is unlike any radio station I’ve ever tuned into. This is transmitting from a host-free, hermetically sealed world of its own. The album is the follow-up to 2009’s breakthrough release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, but in no way is it a sequel. It recalls older Animal Collective albums and yet it sounds like nothing other than itself. It looks to the future while drawing on some unusual reference points from the past. Centipede Hz is its own beast.
If all this sounds like hard work, then the truth to a point is that it is. “Moonjock” begins the record with awkward stabbing production, shifting time signatures, an evasive melody, and Avey Tare’s trademark vocals, which have always veered between endearingly hyperactive and occasionally grating. “Moonjock” feels more like an unusual mid-album interlude than an entry point, but it does make it pretty clear that easy accessibility and concessions to a wider audience are not high on the band’s list of priorities.
Centipede Hz’s lead single “Today’s Supernatural” brings this further into focus. Powered along by a ’70s organ sound (the first indication of what I am certain are direct prog-rock influences on all things), the song’s breakdown actually takes place in its first chorus, reversing the expectations of the structure. Like the opener, it is disorienting and layered with a near-absurd amount of detail, but repeated listens reveal a strong melody at the song’s core. As overstuffed with ideas as the album is, its best moments seem deceptively simple once the penny drops.
Animal Collective has made a career of infusing truly experimental studio sounds with something recognizably human, and their level of success has been increasingly evident over a four album run — from Sung Tongs to Merriweather Post Pavilion — that only a handful of bands can match for consistent quality and innovation. However, as we get into the meat of Centipede Hz, it becomes obvious that the increased gap between the band’s sonic ambition and a tangible connection with the audience can occasionally be self-defeating. They have always been a band so far ahead of the curve that we, the audience, find ourselves playing an admittedly fruitful game of catch-up. The new album has an almost willful density that makes swallowing the whole thing at once seem daunting.
There are a couple of more basic problems as well. The middle section of Centipede Hz contains a couple of Panda Bear-led tracks, but “Rosie Oh” feels too much like an offcut from his last solo album, Tomboy. “New Town Burnout” is better but a little overlong with its six-minute running time. While neither are particularly bad, they also fail to reach the wondrous highs of “My Girls” or his album Person Pitch (which is arguably even better than any of the recent run of fantastic Animal Collective albums). “Wide Eyed” is a rare song featuring Deakin on vocals, and while those vocals are refreshingly free of production effects, they are also placed in the middle of a somewhat unmemorable song.
Despite these issues, there is still so much of merit here. I do wonder if it is really necessary to make an audience work so hard to get into an album, but the hard work is rewarded with an album that reveals something new in its strange textures on every listen, such as the clattering rhythm section on “Applesauce” and the gentle shuffling of “Father Time.” Centipede Hz’s final three tracks are particularly strong, with “Mercury Man” representing the best of the band’s bubbling synth production. The interplay between the programmed sounds and the live instrumentation (no doubt inspired by Deakin’s return from a sabbatical) means that even on the weaker tracks the production remains fascinating.
And then there’s the glorious “Monkey Riches,” Centipede Hz’s longest and best song. It is a combination of a highly addictive loop, Avey Tare’s voice at its most weirdly anthemic, and a slow irresistible build in momentum that explodes into an immense and joyous wall of sound. It is the kind of song that will go down in an absolute storm live and is proof that all of Animal Collective’s detours are worth it if the result is a song this good.
So that’s Centipede Hz, an album that is amongst the most difficult I’ve ever had to summarize. It’s a struggle to recall another album with so many issues that remains this easy to recommend. I believe it’s because Animal Collective’s refusal to rest on their laurels after years of hard work is something that should be applauded. It’s because Centipede Hz may bring to an end that extraordinary run of albums they had, but it does so with a gentle application of the breaks rather than a screeching halt. Most of all, it’s because my gut tells me I’m going to spend the next few months repeatedly coming back to this album to learn more of its secrets. It might not be a masterpiece, but the truth is that music is just a lot more boring without Animal Collective, and it’s a pleasure to have them back.
Tickets are still available to the band’s forthcoming Hollywood Bowl show this month.