As every music blog and token hipster on the planet will remind you, Animal Collective's 2009 opus, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is one of the finest albums of the decade—not only because the songs themselves were so distinct and influential (which they were) or because they were recorded and played with such grace and studio finesse (which they were), but also because the music carried with it such innate power and such a clear sense of importance. After years of freak-folk experimentation (2004's Sung Tongs), abstract, ambient navel-gazing (2005's Feels), and style-hopping reckless abandon (2007's Strawberry Jam), Animal Collective strove to assemble a fluid, cohesive modern masterpiece. And so they did.
Centipede Hz, the band's ninth studio album, doesn't rise to those same epic heights. But then again, it doesn't even try to. Merriweather's bong-friendly psych-pop was eager to please, wrapping the astral harmonies of vocalist/instrumentalists Avey Tare and Panda Bear around subwoofer-friendly beats and user-friendly synth hooks. Diving into the sprawl was never hard work—and as a result, the album won not only critical accolades but also a defining niche in the at-large popular landscape. (Even on modern pop radio, you can still feel the album's potent ripple-effect.) But Centipede's aim isn't perfection. Instead, Animal Collective (Avey Tare, Panda Bear, sound manipulator Geologist, and returning multi-instrumentalist Deakin) embrace messiness and abrasion: playing live instruments together in a room for the first time in nearly a decade, downplaying feathery loops and pillowy textures in favor raw muscle and eardrum-busting mayhem.
The band's intentions are made plain straight away: Where "In the Flowers" opened Merriweather with flowing meadows of airy synth and soft electronic loops, Centipede commences with "Moonjock," a proggy, squiggly sonic problem child blending radio transmission static, Panda Bear's crackling drum blasts, and Avey Tare's bratty, snot-nosed whine. Half-way through, the track explodes into further strangeness, morphing into double-time racket, with wild synths flaring over unrelenting firecracker snare rolls. That breakneck pace continues with the dirty electro-rock throb of "Today's Supernatural," in which deep-fried synths are looped over ecstatic rhythms. Its individual elements may be engaging, but the execution tires: Avey Tare's vocal melodies move at their busiest pace, and once they start un-spindling, they simply never stop.
"Sometimes you gotta go get mad!" the frontman appropriately screams, seconds before an abrupt tempo shift, which sends the track spiraling into noisy chaos. It's so much information, played so quickly and so furiously, it's almost impossible to process it all—even after a few listens. And these two tracks represent the album's largest problem: There's so much beauty and so much experimentation, so many quirks, so much to love—but it all comes at you with the subtlety of a tip-toeing elephant, blasting you in the brain with its sheer blunt force. In the wrong headspace, this stuff can be exhausting, to say the least.
Fortunately, Centipede does settle into a slightly more relaxed pace after that abrasive one-two throat-punch. Unfortunately, the least frenetic track here is "Rosie Oh," which also happens to be one of the band's weakest tracks in over a decade. One of two Panda Bear-penned numbers, "Rosie" feels like a lifeless retread of Panda's typical buzzy choir-boy shtick—sort of like Strawberry Jam's "Derek" minus the rhythmic spirit and emotional clarity.
One of Merriweather's finest qualities was its stylistic synthesis—how it seamlessly blended Avey Tare's freaky side with Panda Bear's choral-dub smoothness. In contrast, the extremely Avey-driven Centipede feels more one-dimensional, though the album's other Panda track, the tight, dubby "New Town Burnout," offers a much-needed respite from on the frenzied aural onslaught. The same goes for the Deakin-composed "Wide Eyed," which nearly steals the show with its druggy, hypnotic swirl, balanced out by the newly-instated member's more subtle, direct vocal style and his fondness for approachable lyrics: "What's the change for the better," he asks over nuclear bass blasts and deadened tom-tom fills, "For a child who learns not to cry?"
It's almost unfair, really. Centipede Hz is too fascinating, too challenging, too insightful to be deemed a failure—but coming after a masterpiece like Merriweather Post Pavilion, that feeling proves awfully tough to shake.
"I'm going hiking/Are you going hiking?" Avey Tare sings above the closing art-rock rumbles of "Amanita." On Centipede Hz, Animal Collective have certainly done their share of hiking—deep into the darkest, weirdest recesses of their sprawling imaginations. Whether others will be joining them on that journey is another story altogether.