Animal Collective on Tangerine Reef drops the freewheeling, high-energy indie-pop vibe for which it’s best known. Here, the act full embraces psychedelic tendencies, creating a work meant to accompany a film and conjure a mood designed to recall gloriously colorful albeit environmentally threatened coral reefs. So, while technically Animal Collective’s 11thstudio album—and first without the enigmatic Panda Bear (Noah Benjamin Lennox)— Tangerine Reef functions as more of a detour into oppressive and mysterious landscapes. The record puts mission ahead of heart. Yet, aside from the like-minded EP Meeting of the Waters, it doesn’t sound much like the Animal Collective of yore. This is Animal Collective as performance artists, with reference points as broad as the confrontational work of Laurie Anderson and disjointed digital works of Aphex Twin.
Technically, Tangerine Reef is a soundtrack. A nearly hourlong film of the same name, a collaboration with the duo of Coral Morphologic (marine biologist Colin Foord and musician J.D. McKay), is available for free on Animal Collective’s web site. Coral Morphologic takes majestic photos and video of coral reefs, and as such, Tangerine Reef the film enraptures the senses with slow-motion shots of alien-like life. Sonically, however, Animal Collective provides a contrast: The music comes across as cold, harsh, and alarming, as if to constantly remind the audience that such beauty is at risk due to climate change and pollution.
Yes, vocals and lyrics accompany the songs of Tangerine Reef. And yet Avey Tare’s singing indistinctly floats among the sonic landscapes—sometimes obscured by them and sometimes becoming a monotone hum. And presumably, Deakin (Joshua Caleb Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Ross Weitz) play instruments, but who knows what sort. “Hair Cutter” feels built out of water drops rather than guitar atmospheres and “Inspector Gadget,” one of the few tunes with bright textures, conjures an organ or synthesizer played inside of a large concrete dumpster.
Despite the inviting images provided by the accompanying film, Animal Collective isn’t out to welcome audiences into the underwater universe. “I’m not sure if you understand,” Avery Tare states on “Coral Understanding”—his phrasing evoking that of someone suffering a nervous breakdown—as what sounds like aluminum cans get scraped and prodded. No, we may not understand, but Animal Collective doesn’t offer to lend a hand, either. Consider “Airpipe (To a New Transition),” which would make for a tense moment in the original Alienfilm, or “Jake and Me,” little more than vocal warbling and maybe the sound of a distant whale.
Animal Collective has good intentions. Climate change remains an urgent subject worthy of more exploration in pop art, but the group takes on the role of dooming alarmists.Coral reefs can let the imagination wander, but Animal Collective instead plays the role of defeatists who infer the reefs’ destruction at the hands of man is already a forgone conclusion. A song like “Coral Realization,” primarily a repetitive razor-sharp alarm sound, doesn’t inspire one to explore the unknown. Akin to a majority of the set, it’s lifeless, a soundtrack for a world already dead.
Domino Records’ black 180-gram vinyl 2LP set isn’t flat and noise, clicks, and pops frequently pierce the music. The latter effect is especially distracting during some of the quieter tracks. Sonically, Tangerine Reef features good separation of instruments and expansiveness, but remains a bit shrill. It could really use some mid-band richness. Most disappointing, the two LPs and their prettily designed inner sleeves are shoved into a thin, unimpressive single jacket.
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