‘Centipede Hz’ shows awareness of context

In high school I had a Bible teacher who asked the easiest questions. I didn’t have to listen really. I would just raise my hand and say, “Jesus” or “salvation” and he would give the students a satisfied grin and move on. There was one blurb that keeps coming back to me though. We would read scriptural texts and would be asked to interpret them, in which case many of us mangled the driving point into something unintelligible or self emulating, a text imported with 21st century skewing. He would do that self-knowing grin again and say one of his cheesiest and, by far, most recurrent class phrases: “context is king.” He probably said it at least one hundred times.

And despite how much I hated how much he repeated that phrase, I keep finding it a good reminder. This context of work relates especially well to Animal Collective’s new album “Centipede Hz” (pronounced Centipede Hertz).

“Centipede Hz,” the band’s ninth album, had an anticipation previously unbeknownst to other Animal Collective records. This primarily came from the album’s unofficial and extremely hyped predecessor “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” Animal Collective’s eighth album and breakthrough record. After playing shows and releasing records as a small, largely unknown band for nearly a decade, “Merriweather” sent the band onto a higher tier with a vastly larger audience, earning an unspoken rank of something like indie rock stars. With their wider audience came harsher criticisms and more expectation. Their cult following grew anxious about where the band was going, paradoxically because most fans (including their old fan-base) cited “Merriweather” as the best album yet. Needless to say, the release of “Centipede Hz” was met with tense and excited anticipation.

For the fanboys, those who wished their favorite band hadn’t gotten so big, the album did not disappoint. “Centipede” swapped many of its more poppy sounds from “Merriweather” for harsher ones that they were more accustomed to by previous albums. In the opening track “Moonjock,” choppy guitars more reminiscent of the band Sleigh Bells fill the audible landscape. In another song, “Today’s Supernatural,” singer Avey Tare screams and stutters on words, sounding something like a rock and roll mariachi band. While Animal Collective songs are usually only sung by two of its members, Avey Tare and Panda Bear, a notable change in this record is the addition of vocals of long-time member Deacon in the song “Wide Eyed.” Avey screams through most of songs (eight out of eleven), but when Deacon and Panda Bear get their turn it is equally rewarding. What I find the most interesting though is the peripheral sounds, the background of and interludes between songs.

Like their other albums, “Centipede Hz” forwards a kind of single track experience. The songs blend together at the fringes. They tie into each other by distortions and twisted sound bites. It doesn’t sound like 11 different songs, but lends itself to the likeness of a singles experience, to an experience like an hour of listening to someone change radio stations. What is so beautiful about this record is that it teaches you how to listen.

It gives you sounds that are irrelevant at times. It garbles the words of singers and everyday things. It contains excitement and inspiration (if you can decipher the lyrics) and out-of-context funny phrases. But what it does best is instill a single track consciousness. Greg Burkman was talking of Delillo’s book “Underworld” when he said this, but it applies nonetheless. “Masterpieces teach you how to read (listen in our case) them.” In the context of Animal Collective’s release of “Merriweather”, one of the best things “Centipede Hz” could do would be to challenge its listener in their growth. And they do just that.

Animal Collective probably did not have a high school Bible teacher instilling the phrase “context is king” into the minds, but it seems like they grasped their history fairly well.