We reviewed Animal Collective's latest release last year, and I started it by writing the following:

"Some bands are marked by clearly defined revolutions in sound. Radiohead have a clear revolution with Kid A, abandoning epic guitar anthems for claustrophobic delightfulness. Animal Collective have always marked their new releases with clear evolutions in sound..."

I felt it necessary to start with this disclosure because Animal Collective aren't a band who stick with one particular sonic category, but evolve consistently through every release they've put out. From humble beginnings, to fortunate encounters, they're still a band in a very conventional sense; four friends making music for music's sake, and nothing else. Never phased by bad press, or by harsh critics (their fans themselves being the most vocal), they never rest on their laurels.

And if you say you're not a fan of Animal Collective, you probably just haven't heard the album that's waiting for you in the wings, as they've gone from Freak Folk to Dance, and all the steps in between.

(A small disclosure for this piece... I'm not going over every single release by the band, nor am I focusing on their solo records to a great extent. I'm picking out their studio albums, and any supplemental releases I think deserve more attention when discussing their history. I, for one, absolutely love Water Curses, but will not be focusing on it for this article. Hopefully, the information I have picked out creates a vivid picture regardless.)



Formation

Animal Collective was actually birthed out of the embers of another band, Automine. This band included David Portner, Josh Dibb, and Brian Weitz, three friends who would go on to become members of Animal Collective, bit by bit. Shortly after the band put out its only release, the Paddington Band single, Noah Lennox was introduced to the friends through Josh Dibb. All from Baltimore, the four friends back then primarily worked on their own material, sending their work to each other for feedback.

Dibb and Lennox ended up going to college in Boston, where Portner and Weitz went to study in New York. It was during Dibb's and Lennox's time in Boston together that they formed Lennox's solo album, Panda Bear. Lennox had taken to wearing a panda hat when playing live, something he would continue to do for a number of years, which gave birth to his solo name, and therein the album title. However, whilst Dibb and Lennox seemed to be enjoying their surroundings in Boston, Portner was not enjoying the solitude invoking atmosphere of New York, and out of this, arguably, Animal Collective was born.



Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished

When returning between studying back to Baltimore, Portner was looking to release his own solo album, under his own chosen moniker, Avey Tare (the idea behind this name was that 'Avey' was Davey (his christian name, shortened) torn up). Taking material he had written in the last year or so, and a song called 'Penny Dreadfuls' he had first performed as part of Automine, he was looking to release an album that sparkled with shimmering 'space-like' guitars, and glittering synth lines. Weitz offered up a synth that Portner could use for the bass sound he was looking for, but he still needed percussion sorting out, and so Lennox became involved.

The story goes that after hearing the drum tracks Lennox had contributed to his album, Portner decided to no longer release the album solely under his own name, but decided to give Lennox equal stake in the album itself. And so the album was released with the album artist reading 'Avey Tare and Panda Bear'. It was put out under their newly created 'Animal' label (originally intended for the four friends to release their solo projects through), and Dibb helped to promote the album and handle the marketing of this first collaborative work.

Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished was met with universal acclaim. Sure, it didn't go onto sell millions of copies within weeks, but to this day is still regarded as being one of the best releases by the group of friends. From the seductive 'Chocolate Girl', to the destructively peaceful 'Penny Dreadfuls', it shows musicians with a keen sense of direction, and is arguably one of the least experimental pieces of work they've ever done. That's not to say it's not challenging, however. With odd fissures of static erupting all over the place, and vocals which definitely take a back seat, it's a bizarre mix, for sure. However, the ability on display here, and the scope, is undeniably monumental. The album is summed up by 'Alvin Row', a twelve minute cacophony of drive and crashing vocals, dancing synths, and cymbal perfect percussion.

It certainly showed that even though these guys were interested in creating something that challenged listeners, the music was unshakeably experimental, but certainly never experimental to a fault. Unfortunately, this is something which could easily be levied at their next release.



Danse Manatee

Danse Manatee, the black sheep of the Animal Collective discography. It'd be a shame to not mention this album when discussing the band's history. After Spirit, Portner and Lennox joined up with Weitz to record some new material, more often than not, straight onto minidisks (Weitz called himself Geologist when performing, partly owing to the belief by many of his acquaintances that he studied this subject at college, and also partly down to the fact he wore a flashlight on his head during sets to see his synthesisers and samplers). This actually meant that this lineup for Danse Manatee was the exact same lineup that brought us Merriweather Post Pavilion. Was this album as well received? Fuck no.

Whilst playing a lot of shows with their three-piece setup, the band started to think about putting together a new release, which would eventually become their second album. Whilst planning out Danse Manatee, they were approached by a label who offered to put out some new material for them. Out of this escapade, Hollindagain was born, a collection of live performances consisting of one track off Danse Manatee, the rest new material. Whereas Hollindagain was contained, directed, and more progressive than anything they had done before (even given the spontaneous nature of the recordings), Danse Manatee was not.

Full of abrasive sounds, challenging dredges of static, and often sacrificing melody for wanton self-indulgence, it's a record that a lot of Animal Collective fans will skip over when discussing their favourite albums by the band. Personally, I believe it's their second worse album, next to their fourth release, Here Comes the Indian. The reason I rank it so, well, relatively highly is due to the fact that buried deep in its treasure trove of nonsense are complete gems. The band themselves have expressed deep personal love of the album, and at times, it's easy to see why. It's easy to see why, mostly because that's the album's most obvious fatal flaw.

It's a band with complete disregard for anyone listening in. It's a group of friends playing around and seeing what they can do with what they've got. However, there is one song that sticks out on this album like a sore thumb. That track is 'Essplode', and I can say that out of all of the early Animal Collective work it's my favourite track along with 'Alvin Row'. A stripped back guitar jam, haunting lyrics (referencing what seems to be going down on someone) and crashing percussion. On the album, this comes across as a peaceful island in the middle of a tropical storm. Live, the song took on a completely different nature.

It's definitely worth checking out the version captured on the LP (it's one of about three recordings that genuinely gives me goosebumps whenever I listen to it), but the above video highlights how mightily weird it would have been to have stumbled across Animal Collective in their more formative years. We're going to look again at 'Essplode' a little later in this piece. It's a song that takes on especially significant meaning a little later in the band's timeline.



Campfire Songs

Campfire Songs is the first album to feature Dibb (who took on the recording name Deakin, although spelt every way imaginable in nearly every band release). Dibb is a straight up guitarist, later on using more varied effects alongside it, but easily the most static and easy to pin down artists in the band. His influence here is hugely notable, as this album is largely composed from just three guitars playing alongside vocals. Oddly enough, the album was released eponymously, actually making the official album artist for Campfire Songs... Campfire Songs (go fix you iTunes libraries ASAP).

Recorded on a front porch in 2001, the same year they recorded Danse Manatee, straight onto minidisk players (by Weitz) in one take, it's five songs played continuously through and it is easily the band's most stripped down performance of their career. Somehow, nothing is sacrificed, and the early sounds of a band creating something lush out of something so simple is ever-present. Whilst Panda Bear had often helped with vocal yelps on Danse, here his vocal line helped to compliment Avey Tare's, and the harmonies they made would go onto shine in a lot of their work together. Although the album was recorded in 2001, it wasn't released until 2003, which is actually when they released their album after this one too. It's easily the most 'folk' Animal Collective have ever been, and is actually a good starting point for someone trying to look at the band's earlier work. Their next album, however, really isn't.



Here Comes The Indian

Here Comes The Indian is a bizarre old thing. First of all, it is the first instance of the band going under the name 'Animal Collective'. Before this, each release simply listed the band members, apart from on Campfire Songs. Apparently, the record label cringed at the idea of the artist name for the album being 'Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin and Geologist', and so the guys took the name of their label they had set up to put out their music on ('Animal'), and so dubbed themselves Animal Collective. Their discography up to that point was then retroactively put under this name, and all subsequent releases (and re-releases) involving two or more members of the band has been given this name.

And so you'd think that Here Comes The Indian would be the point at which everything fell into place, where the folk sensibilities, and experimental instrumentation would meld together into what we've come to know as Animal Collective. Well... it didn't. Truth be told, if you can get past Danse Manatee's outward weirdness, HCTI slowly becomes the worst Animal Collective album there is. Which is a shame, because it is as weird on the outside as anything else they've done, yet somehow a lot more coherent.

The song 'Native Belle' was their most melodic opening song to date, 'Two Sails on a Sound' still is atmospheric and arresting, whereas 'Slippi' is jaunty and happy through to it's climax. It's just not all that... memorable. Sure, it's nice, but this wasn't meant as background music. This isn't something to soak up and experience, which Campfire Songs seemed to want you to do. This feels like a first attempt at something a bit more mainstream, a bit more listenable, and HCTI goes too far one way. Live, the chaos seemed to reign too, for better or worse. With four voices on stage trying to be heard the most, it became apparent that something had to give.

What was lacking was direction, and getting everything singing from the same hymn sheet. What was needed, it turned out, was a bit of a change completely.



Sung Tongs

Less than a year after Here Comes The Indian, Portner and Lennox were already planning their next move. They weren't looking to abandon Dibb and Weitz, they just found themselves in a space where they could record just themselves together, and decided to embrace the nature of Animal Collective, as a beast that could take on many forms. And for the first time since Spirit, they were back to just the two of them.

Sung Tongs acts as a reboot. This is the album where they managed to strike gold and find thoroughly bountiful experimental folk. The playful double vocal melodies of Campfire Songs bloom here, and are what go on to define Animal Collective for the next years ahead. Received by the pundits with plaudits, it was the first album by the band to get widespread media attention. And, oh man, I decided shortly after hearing 'Who Could Win A Rabbit' for the first time that it was going to be the first song played at my wedding. Whether anyone else wants it or not.

By refining their musicality, and tightening the range they decided to cover here, this album is so close to being golden, and probably would be had Animal Collective then not gone on to make their next three albums. I reviewed this album a few years ago, and summed up the review with the following: "This isn't the classic freak folk album, but damn, it's a lot of fun." Honestly, I was cheating a little. I was cheating a little because I'd already listened to Feels.



Feels

This is the one where the band gets back together. Again, just over a year had passed since Sung Tong's release, and they had Feels recorded and in the bag. After redefining their sound, Feels grows the limbs around the idea birthed in Sung Tongs. Everything feels so fluid, listening to this album is akin to being caressed by a well experienced masseuse as you float in flocked airbed in a still sea. It's here that you realise that for the first time ever, here we have a group truly combining together perfectly, everyone bringing something unique to the table, without one particular area being neglected, or one area taking undue prominence.

If you're looking for a lesson in how to produce great sounding drums on a record, just listen to Feels. If you're looking for how to put reverb on vocals without making them sound over-produced or washed-out, listen to Feels. How on earth so you add a guitar track into an already busy track without losing the melody? Listen to Feels. Certainly, Feels is arguably a little less 'poppy' in parts compared to Sung Tongs, but the refinement and beefing-out of the overall sound is staggering. By the time 'Turn Into Something' rolls around, there will have been several times a smile will have crossed your face on your first listen.

Feels has just got this aura surrounding it that it exists purely for the sake of fun. It also, notably, got the band in trouble, legally, with Stevie Wonder. The live song posted above, 'The Purple Bottle', originally had a verse which used lyrics from Stevie Wonder's 'I Just Called to Say I Love You' which you'll hear them reference in the video. They removed it from their version of the song recorded onto Feels, and with that I impart upon you some of the weirdest Animal Collective trivia out there.



Strawberry Jam

After Sung Tong's mini revolution in sound, it would have seemed logical for the band to keep on at the sound that proved so popular on that release, and Feels. But once again Animal Collective bucked expectations and opted for something completely different again. We got ourselves Strawberry Jam in 2007, definitely their 'rockiest' record to date and hardest hitting. From the opener 'Peacebone', which starts with a smattering of a multitude of synth sounds and samples falling over each other before a bass beat comes smashing through to gain hold of melody, to the optimistically simple closing track of 'Derek', which has echoing guitar lines chewed up and spat out by a pulsating drum beat halfway through, what's on display with Strawberry Jam is confidence.

Confidence lyrically, for Portner to utter nonchalantly halfway through 'Winter Wonder Land', "Tears are frozen diamonds / So we smile when we're crying" as if he hadn't just cut you in half. Confidence to throw in the obligatory experimental jam, '#1', as a fuck you for those who thought this was going to be an easy ride all the way through. Confidence to return to what they'd set out to do with Here Comes The Indian and make it a whole lot better.

However, during touring for Strawberry Jam, some interesting things were afoot. Firstly, they were down a member, Dibb deciding to take some time out of the band (many fans believed his absence to be indefinite), and they were playing a lot of new material at live shows. On top of this, a lot of old material was being recycled, and reworked, most notably, for the better. Not a lot of current stuff. Also too, Lennox had released his new Panda Bear album, Person Pitch, composed almost entirely out of samples. It went on to be huge in 2007, and garnered Lennox a lot of attention as a solo artist, and also put pressure on the band. The balance of electronic vs folk in the band was going to be something that came under a great deal of focus.

I mentioned that 'Essplode' would be looked at again earlier in this dissection. It seemed to the world that we were going to be faced with another Danse Manatee after the sensation of the three album killer punch of Sung Tongs, Feels, and Strawberry Jam. Now the band was back to being without Dibb, and the last time this three-some had released an album, it was way too self-indulgent and messy. Many believed that it was Weitz's influence that was the cause. Always more inclined to use recorded samples than live instrumentation, worries were abound when in interviews Weitz believed that he saw the band as making 'electronic' music now.

However, Weitz summed it up perfectly when explaining why he saw the music he was making as purely electronic. He managed to see that what they were now doing was acting as a DJ for the music they'd created, making seamless links between songs, and the samples they made came from their own home recordings anyway. 'Essplode' summed up this change, as it was a song that originally came across as peace at the eye of the storm on Danse Manatee, but live it ballooned into something much more important than it ever had been on its own.

The above video is probably my favourite live performance I've ever seen. Starting off with an energetic version of 'Fireworks', sandwiching in a 'fuck you' version of 'Essplode' in the middle, and finally having the embers of 'Fireworks' disperse into a reworked 'Who Could Win A Rabbit', it encapsulates the band in so many ways. It also put to bed, at the time, any doubts fans would have over their next release. Live sets were almost dominated after the release of Strawberry Jam by songs set to be on their next album, and no-one was complaining. Here was something really different, and yet it seemed to be the next step for the band, and one they were comfortable taking.



Merriweather Post Pavilion

Where Strawberry Jam experimented with rock beats, synthesised sound and programmed drumming, Merriweather Post Pavilion took all the lessons learnt so far on every single release, and gave us something which was most definitely a 'dance' album, but one you'd still feel comfortable dancing around a campfire too at the same time. Without inducing any degree of hyperbole, it's safe to say that Merriweather objectively ranks as one of the greatest noughties albums.

Anticipated greatly by a large number of critics before its release, loved by those upon release who found something completely different to what they'd come to expect from the band, and still, to this day, causing influence in a whole variety of different genres, from straight up folk, to modern pop. It arrived at just the right time, at the start of a year which the band was ready to own. Songs perfected in a live setting over a period of two years were heavily polished, and it seemed like this album was the culmination of everything Animal Collective had been trying to do since they'd set out from Baltimore so many years ago. That's all that needs to be said about Merriweather.



Fall Be Kind

The little EP that could. Fall Be Kind was an EP made by the band the same year they released Merriweather, just a short time afterwards. In various tours for their eighth LP, Animal Collective played 'What Would I Want? Sky' with their latest material, leading many to believe it would soon either be released as a B side to a track (It was largely rumoured to be on the 'Brothersport' single) or be a part of a new collection of songs. When Fall Be Kind was announced it then made sense for this track to be on there. Fall Be Kind deserves a special mention when looking through the history of Animal Collective (as they've released 5 EPs, and this is the only one getting its own section), largely down to the fact that it comes across as a direct response to the media attention the band was getting with Merriweather.

Even the title itself, Fall Be Kind, seemed to be referencing the band's predicted fall from grace with the masses, hoping that such a loss of attention bodes well in the long run. Fall Be Kind ended up being the perfect follow up to Merriweather, something which many thought couldn't be done. Many songs are included in their current set-lists from this EP, and it was hard to think of anything that could have followed up such a huge album better.

It was a shade darker than anything they'd released on Merriweather, yet light just when it needed to be. 'I Think I Can' starts of with the doomed sound of falling synths, but towards the end of the song, meandering, light-hearted beats oscillate around as Portner and Lennox reassure you with their vocal delights that everything is going to be just fine.For me, 'I Think I Can' encapsulates their whole ethos at the time. It's full of uncertainty at the start, and trepidation, and worry, and then it's basically just like, 'Fuck it, let's just have fun and worry about all the other stuff later.'



ODDSAC

ODDSAC, released in 2010, was something the band had been talking about in interviews for a number of years. With all members of the band contributing, Animal Collective were first approached to be the focus of a touring documentary. The band wasn't too keen on the idea, so decided to enlist the help of Danny Perez, the guy who had put together the 'Who Could Win a Rabbit' music video.

Over time (the film was first mentioned in 2006), the ideas they had evolved into a visual album, and starred Portner, Lennox, Dibb and Weitz acting in a non-linear narrative designed to meld together the music they had created with Perez's psychedelic visuals. Whilst certainly an interesting concept, and definitely a must-watch for any self-respecting AC fan, it's definitely up there with the most bizarre things the band have ever done. It seemed to just tide people over enough, however, before their next major studio album.



Centipede Hz

Throughout my life I've been excited about certain albums being released, and just how much I expect to come out enjoying it. I can't actually remember a time, however, where this has paid off in its fullest. The latest album where this hit me was probably the new Tera Melos LP, X'ed Out. Don't get me wrong, this album was great, but I loved Patagonian Rats, and it was pretty much the soundtrack to my 2010 (along with Titus Andronicus' The Monitor).

Before that, Foxygen was my source of disappointment. Again, on the whole, really enjoyed the album, but for me it failed to lift itself to the heights set by their EP released a few months earlier. The King of Limbs, again, good, but not In Rainbows (which conversely, I went into expecting a mix of rushed, half-finished ideas given the method of release). Centipede Hz had a lot of anticipation piled upon it. How would Animal Collective follow up Merriweather? Well, you know what? They sort of didn't.

Centipede Hz is a great album, but if you line it up against the other albums released by the band, and you'll probably find it sits closer to the middle in terms of quality than you'd really like. Dibb returned, and I think everyone was expecting the improvisation used previously on songs which more prominently featured guitars would be back. You'd struggle to see a song on Centipede Hz strung out to twenty minutes long, and that's part of the charm of Animal Collective at their best. You've no idea what's going to happen, even when a song you've heard fifty times live is played again.

On Centipede Hz, everything sounds like it's going to be played live exactly how it sounds on its radio edit. Live versions of songs on the album still sound an awful lot better than the album versions, and there's one song, 'Crimson', that didn't even make it onto the studio album, even though it's a clear fan favourite. It made it onto the 'Applesauce' single, but it would have been amazing to have it take pride of place on Centipede Hz.

I still stand by this site's 8/10 review from last year, but it's simply not the album fans were hoping for. And here lies the problem with Animal Collective, and for the sake of this article, the problem with anything analysed to the point of exhaustion.

We come to expect the unexpected. This is a band that has never once rested on its laurels, and has never once been afraid to reinvent itself. They've gone through nearly all colours of the experimental spectrum, and everyone wondered what was next. What we got was a quasi-Strawberry Jam with a few more effects put on the guitars and synthesisers, at the cost of the vocal melodies which had been so prominent and well-used, pretty much since Sung Tongs.

One thing in particular, however, that was great about this album was the method of delivery. The band had been notorious for leaks of their last two albums, but Centipede Hz made it out unscathed, and the launch night of the album had it streamed alongside visuals provided by Portner's sister, Abby. Below is 'Amanita', alongside the weird visuals we were all willingly subject to that night.



Next

So what next? This whole article leads us to this conclusion, the answer of which is simply... who the fuck knows? Animal Collective are a band constantly challenging themselves, and if they felt anything like the general public did about Centipede Hz, they'll feel the mission to create something new and interesting is larger now than it ever has been. The band have constantly included new material in their touring set-lists, and it's increasingly present that this isn't happening at the moment. Old material is being reshaped and presented in new and interesting ways, but new material isn't there at the moment. To quote Panda Bear from an interview in 2008 at the Pitchfork Music Festival :

"For the first couple of years playing in NY it was almost always the same group of friends of our friends at the show to see us play, so, I think we started to feel like we should have new songs for them to hear rather than just the same set, so I feel like we kinda got in this cycle of always playing, or wanting to play, new songs for people."

Possibly we're in for a little bit of a wait before we start to see new material surface, but when we do, we'll know the cogs are in motion for the next era of Animal Collective. Personally, I'm going to see this ride through right to the end, and I'd advise anyone out there who's looking for something exciting to tag along with me. This is a band which gets me excited about music, every time I listen to them, and for that I owe them everything. Thanks for hearing me out, and I hope you've picked out something from this which gets you as excited as I do listening to these guys.