Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs was a burst of weird forestrial noise, a distillation of the freakiest parts of the freak-folk movement, and probably the best album the band will ever release. It was a collection of unpredictable songs united by an eerie sense of cultic repetition. Since then, the band has kept up a habit of experimentalism, but has really only pushed in one steady direction, their music growing busier, denser, and more hectic. And Centipede Hz is their busiest album to date, to the point that the frantic crush of sounds grows stifling, and while it certainly feels different than anything they’ve done before, there isn’t much new to discover.
Listening to the two albums back to back, removing the separation of eight years and four intervening efforts, it’s clear how much has changed. The Animal Collective of Centipede Hz isn’t necessarily stranger, but their thicket of sounds has less to do with the uneasy relationship between rhythmic repetition and transition than the forceful combination of the two; there’s so much change here (between songs and within them) that it becomes a rhythmic pattern in itself. The sound is more city than country, obliterating any sense of the eerie pastoralia and open spaces that once defined the band. Opener “Moonjock” establishes this dense template, incorporating junk-sound samples, electronic fluff, and radio interference, the latter a buzzing constant that undergirds the entire album.
The buzz around the album is that the changes are attributable to returning member Deakin, who didn’t participate in the far more accessible Merriweather Post Pavilion. But the group’s lineup has always been amorphous, with members drifting in and out. All four didn’t properly solidify as a unit until 2003’s Here Comes the Indian, and Sung Tongs only featured contributions from Panda Bear and Avey Tare, maybe not coincidentally the two members to have embarked on successful side projects. It may be more important, then, that all four members are again active on Centipede Hz, the overflowing density of which is probably a consequence of a muddled surfeit of sounds and ideas.
This means that while the songs here are as intricate as ever, they don’t really pursue any new avenues aside from the heavy patter of noises flitting around at the margins. Tracks like “Mercury Man” and “Father Time” feel like conglomerations of all the band’s usual tics (lightning-paced hootenannies defined by constant transitions, charging drumbeats, and gonzo intrusions) and are consequently wan and forgettable, their insipid busyness rendering them nearly indistinguishable from one another. The band’s best albums have used the members on hand to craft a singular, instantly recognizable aesthetic: the spacey emptiness of Sung Tongs or the droning psych-pop of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Centipede Hz may have a lot of interesting elements floating around, and it may be held together by the same strong songcraft that has always sustained Animal Collective, but it’s all too murky and familiar, less profoundly complex than inaccessibly complicated.