by Craig Short
Animal Collective can pretty much do whatever the hell they want at this point. They have a string of phenomenal and innovative releases behind them. They were one of most interesting band of the aughts by far, and all this rich history gives them a baseline level of credibility for any work they put out. “New AnCo” is guaranteed to have, if not always-universal praise, at least a whole lot of attention. What will the band do next with this supreme convenience? Seclude themselves in a darkened studio with dinosaurs projected on the wall for a month and record the results? Go to South America and record long ambient electro-folk songs in the rainforest? Done and done, with surprisingly great results. So if they choose to, say, record lead singer Avey Tare moaning faintly over a bunch of bleep-bloop frequency-modulated synths and aimless watery ambience, and then sync that to an hour long video of trippy and sometimes weirdly sexual shots of fluorescent coral polyps – well, by golly, I’m still going to listen to it.
And thus we get Tangerine Reef, the new audiovisual experience from Animal Collective and Coral Morphologic, a duo of filmographers and activists who create beautiful showcases of life on a coral reef. This record is unusual for a few reasons, chief among them being that it does not include founding member Panda Bear, who has been on every AnCo release before this one. It does, however, feature a comparatively rare appearance by Deakin, the ever-mysterious guitarist who’s only on about 20% of the band’s discography. Animal Collective, it’s said, is just that- a collective, a rotating cast of artists who are technically allowed to make music without Panda Bear if they want to. I just didn’t think they would, ya know? And I don’t know if they should have.
The function of this music, first and foremost, is to soundtrack the video. And when you combine the two, it really is pretty cool. Each song accompanies a close-up study of a new type of life on the reef, be it a polyp, worm, or sea slug stuffing its tentacles into an unsettling anus-mouth and licking them clean. The music isn’t demanding; it’s formless, full of dense electronic textures that chug along creepily, busily, but harmlessly. It’s a continuous rippling reef of sounds, one song fading into the next with little to distinguish it from the others. Avey Tare sings on most of the tracks, but he seems to focus more on being present than being understood. He delivers his words with a tuneless, rambling affect, an eerie moaning that sounds kind of like Arthur Russell if he was standing on a street corner and shouting about the end of the world. This music isn’t great for active listening, but all told, it’s hypnotic when combined with the alien undulations of the coral, so it does its job. The audiovisual experience is quite lovely, and the whole point of it was to show the beauty of an ecosystem that will soon disappear forever as the oceans warm and acidify. As an environmental effort, I salute the work.
Taken on their own merits, though, the songs are pretty disappointing for Animal Collective. I want to say that Panda Bear being away was Tangerine Reef’s downfall somehow, but in reality I have no idea what difference it made- this album was always going to be a drifty, ambient dribble, so I can’t fault any particular member for it being nondescript. I just feel a bit cheated knowing that I was promised new AnCo, and was then delivered a shapeless mass that the band could probably have dashed out in a single living room jam session. The closest parallel in the band’s discography is probably 2003’s Danse Manatee (which, fun fact, pretty much was recorded in a living room). That album was deeply textural, largely ambient, and very divisive – was it revolutionary or just noisy garbage? But at least that record had distinct songs and some replay value beyond creeping your friends out with footage of a sea slug. It wasn’t always pleasant to listen to, but that’s what made it interesting. Tangerine Reef, by comparison, is pretty unobjectionable, which means it’s not a bad album by any stretch. But it’s not great either.