The Anniversary

Centipede Hz Turns 10

Domino
2012
Domino
2012

Animal Collective were never poised to be mainstream stars. Throughout their 2000s era, they refused to stay still from album to album, always eager to plunge themselves into new territory even when finding success and praise that may often lead other bands to dig their heels and remain in place. That didn’t stop many from speculating that the breakthrough of Merriweather Post Pavilion would decide the group’s fate thereon, preemptively coronating them as indie crossover luminaries while they geared up to release a follow-up that announced themselves as anything but.

Centipede Hz — released 10 years ago this Sunday — bore the unfortunate brunt of living in the shadow of its predecessor. Where newfound interest in the band hewed toward Merriweather’s sweet harmonies, it failed to account for Animal Collective’s capacity to draw from their storied past as noise rock experimenters on 2003’s Ark or the jagged edges of pop lacing 2007’s Strawberry Jam. Much of the publicity surrounding the record emphasized the conceptual structure as radio transmission; the crucial element it neglected to consider was the band’s repeated description of said broadcast as “alien.”

The rest writes itself: Initial reactions to Centipede Hz’s release found this misalignment of expectations versus the reality of the album reaching a fever pitch. The early response likened the record to a burrito against a windshield. Blame for the busyness of the mix was often cast on Deakin, whose absence during the Merriweather era made him an easy scapegoat for the album’s alienating new sound. “Jizz-wailers” were invoked. Above all else, Centipede Hz was weighed primarily in comparison to Merriweather Post Pavilion and evaluated for what it meant for an Animal Collective post-breakout.

While initial reception sought the possibility of a record so excellent that it couldn’t yet be understood, Centipede Hz made no secret upon its release of its more modest reality: a crucial transitory passage for a band that has always followed its own impulses and artistic integrity over compromising itself for mass appeal. The album even announces itself this way in its opening moments, with a slurry of robotic voices and voice samples cobbled together to speak, “This is the new… Centipede…” before counting down and blasting off at breakneck speed, away from anything resembling Merriweather Post Pavilion.

It’s only fitting that the band’s record most calling attention to its intermediary role is so conceptually enamored with the idea of what passage means: in art, in physical transit, and in life. Every part of Centipede Hz exists in a form of liminal purgatory — full of poppy hooks while existing firmly on the fringes of rock and electronic, packed with the existential dread permeating one’s mid-30s, embodying the placelessness of a sunstroke-addled road trip. Like many of the great accomplishments in Animal Collective’s discography (think the blissed-out synths matching Merriweather’s out-of-body lyricism, or the childlike eagerness Avey Tare and Panda Bear took to the “two guys with acoustic guitars” template on Sung Tongs), where Centipede Hz shines brightest is how closely its sound hews toward mirroring the ideas at its center.

In this particular case, like another certain rock album released 10 years prior, the songs on Centipede Hz are stitched together like overlapping radio transmissions, albeit mired in sludgy cosmic interference. On each side of the record, tracks bleed together like a new signal is being picked up the second another fades, left behind as the distance from its source grows too great. The big rock climax that tears “Today’s Supernatural” down with a threshing scream dissipates into the soft opening pulse of “Rosie Oh.” At the end of “Wide Eyed,” noteworthy for sporting Deakin’s first vocal lead for the band, the titular refrain gets swallowed up by the looping fragments of a radio jingle, mimicking static from another signal breaking through on the same frequency.

But it’s not just these mini-suites and radio ephemera that sells the record’s concept; Centipede Hz is just structured like a damn good album for a long drive. Its initial run of songs — the opening pair of “Moonjock” into “Today’s Supernatural” especially — serve as the high-octane jolt of energy that comes from speeding down that first stretch of open road. The album’s middle passage slows the tempo down around “Father Time” and “New Town Burnout,” providing necessary variety right around when a listener might be settling into their trip. And, naturally, the whole thing culminates in a rejuvenating second wind, with the final rush of “Amanita” practically made for slamming the pedal down on an empty straightaway.

Though the aforementioned early assessments of the mix singled out Deakin as the album’s sonic mastermind, it’s Geologist — long-underappreciated in his role as the texturalist bolstering the voices of Animal Collective — who was most overlooked at the time for defining the sound of Centipede Hz. His sampling litters nearly every moment of the record, from the collage of radio ads and soundbites punctuating “Rosie Oh” to the phantom choirs that haunt “New Town Burnout” and “Mercury Man.” As hasty as critics made the album out to be on release, Geologist puts an immense degree of intentionality into the placement of certain elements, as well as when to crowd the mix as opposed to letting melodies breathe. Even his methods of choosing samples came from purposeful decision-making — deliberately eschewing his penchant for field recordings in favor of a spaced-out remove befitting Centipede Hz’s alien voyage.

If there’s one thing that carries over from Merriweather Post Pavilion, though, it’s Animal Collective’s refusal to lose sight of the melodies and hooks that allow their songs to glide, even when the songs grow chaotic with noisy accoutrement. Late album cut “Mercury Man” has long been an underrated favorite of mine for this reason, carrying Avey Tare’s most emotive vocal performance on the record — dealing with the strains of distance in a relationship — given additional pathos through trembling distortion and a tender piano melody backing his singing.

As expected from an album mimicking various radio transmissions encountered on a trip, Centipede Hz often deals in itinerant matters as on “Mercury Man.” Where Avey Tare’s take on that theme is filled with figurative worry, Panda Bear’s portrays the same subject on “New Town Burnout” with more direct longing for a return home after a long time away, drawing out repetitions of “Lift this weight/ Leave my light on.” It’s not all desire in the wake of absence, though. “Moonjock” immediately introduces the theme with memories of family road trips in childhood, rendered as stories from “our covered wagon times.” “Amanita” ends the album with the other definition of “trip,” musing on the tradition of storytelling during travel, until the hallucinogenic properties of the titular mushroom kick in and Avey Tare sings about returning to nature with the promise of bringing back stories of his own.

The record’s lyricism feels especially vital for how it ties being in transit into the yearning for place that comes with age. By Centipede Hz’s release, Animal Collective were in their 30s. The youthful exuberance heard on Sung Tongs had long since passed, but the band still found themselves (as on “Moonjock”) considering what that era meant for their years ahead. “Applesauce” is the main track tackling this head-on, with lines such as “When I was young I thought fruit was an infinite thing/ I’d be sad to wake up and find all of my cherries are charred or they’re rotted to ruin” that skew equally parts wistful and anxious. “Father Time” sees Avey Tare confronting mortality as well, now old enough to write about chance encounters with the specters of those who “passed a long time ago.” There’s a certain poignancy to moments like these that make Centipede Hz especially strong in retrospect, seeing Animal Collective see their place in life with newfound maturity that would blossom even further with time.

It also helps that the Centipede Hz is just relentlessly filled to the brim with bangers. “Today’s Supernatural” rightfully gets most of the love for this as the record’s fastest song whose hook (a stuttering Avey Tare repetition of “come on, le-le-le-le-le-let go”) leaves an indelible impression. The constant shifts that move “Applesauce” from fond reminiscence into emphatic clamor keep listeners excited and on their toes. And “Pulleys” is the closest Animal Collective will likely ever come to pure anthemic rock, with propulsive bursts of harmonization and bongo hits — it’s downright endearing in its unfettered joyousness.

Chalk it up to Panda Bear returning to drumming — his work behind the kit is frequently raucous and frenetic, often turning on a dime from simple rhythms to hurtling snare rolls. “Moonjock” as the album opener serves as the perfect microcosm of this: kicking things off with just enough thundering percussion to follow its 5/4 syncopation, continually building upon those bones until Panda Bear is delivering enough fast-paced fills and cymbal crashes to make the album feel like it’s fully taken to the highway.

If there’s one thing that’s kept me coming back to Centipede Hz more than anything else over the years, it’s that the album features some of Animal Collective’s most compelling and inventive song structures to date. There’s no denying the rush of “Moonjock” launching into its feverish jam-band outro in its final minutes, made all the more exciting for how album closer “Amanita” replicates that move as a framing device. Mid-album cuts “New Town Burnout” and “Monkey Riches” both take great patience in unfurling, letting instrumental passages take hold in place of vocals as a necessary breather.

The standout in a songwriting sense is easily “Applesauce,” which brings an ingenuity that results in one of the strongest post-2010 tracks from the group. Avey Tare’s vocals twist about themselves, jamming as many syllables as he can fit into a line without compromising the rhythmic core. Rather than fitting a typical verse/chorus structure, however, the song connects multiple refrains together in quick succession, before crashing down in a spirited coda, constantly building in sound and scope to make its nostalgic musings feel as major as Avey Tare sees them.

It’s here, especially, where the infamous “burrito on your windshield” criticism often loses muster. When so many of the tracks hinge on their unpredictability or showstopping climaxes, it becomes clear that much of the album’s virtues are to be found in the journey rather than simply where they begin. At its most exhilarating moments, Centipede Hz captures Avey Tare’s own words on “Applesauce”: “When you think you don’t know, you don’t know what comes next.”

As impossible as it seemed to surmise where Animal Collective would go next after Centipede Hz dropped in 2012, the eventual result feels in many ways like a natural progression from where this album left off. After taking most of the rest of the 2010s to explore poppier domains on Painting With, pursue solo and side projects, and perform Sung Tongs in full on tour, Animal Collective found a new creative golden era after releasing Time Skiffs earlier this year, garnering the best reception of any record of theirs since Merriweather Post Pavilion. Distance from their breakthrough was almost certainly in this album’s favor, but Time Skiffs also benefited from its relative immediacy and spaciousness.

Despite the differences in their initial receptions, it’s easy to see where the seeds for Time Skiffs’ songs were sown in Centipede Hz. In the winding jam band structure of “Strung With Everything” that withholds its refrain for several minutes, one can see the glimmers of Animal Collective testing that format out in a different sound on “Applesauce.” Hell, “Cherokee” essentially follows the same gradual build as “Moonjock” or “Amanita” in a much softer tone. It might have been hard for some to see what Centipede Hz was going for directly after Merriweather, but perhaps seeing how it’s continuing to pay off for the band might put the record in a new light.

As much as the full path ahead for Animal Collective may be unclear, it’s retroactive revelations like these — where a release gains newfound context for its place in the overall picture — that keep me invested in the band, no matter what speed bumps they hit along the way. Centipede Hz’s excellence was there to be understood from the moment it came out; what we couldn’t yet understand at the time was how it would act as a pulley to get Animal Collective where they needed to be.

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