If there’s one thing that has been consistent about the ever-mercurial Animal Collective, it’s that they will almost assuredly zig when you expect them to zag.
When you watch the video, you’re sucked into an almost uncanny valley of coral reef imagery. The figures appear to be too vivid and acting in such an oddly patterned and discernible way, as though you’re watching computer-generated imagery. Unless you are a coral reef expert, you wouldn’t know that you are simply observing coral in its natural state.
“[The visuals are] important for us because some of our initial inspirations for making music were — and is — the unknown and the mysterious,” says Dave Portner, the band’s co-vocalist and guitarist under the name Avey Tare. “I think it’s cool to be able to remind yourself and to remind people that there’s still otherworldly and unknown things out there to be seen or heard.”
This is sort of Animal Collective in a nutshell. They are an amorphous musical entity that seems allergic to any casual adoration from fans and critics. Rather than regurgitating the same sounds and thoughts every album and touring cycle, they have given themselves the runway to evolve from four guys who used to take the stage in animal masks obscuring their faces to having the freedom to be themselves.
Brian Weitz, who mans the synthesizer sounds in the band under the moniker Geologist, was one of the main champions of “Tangerine Reef.” Weitz and Josh Dibb — known as Deakin, the multi-instrumentalist of the band — are avid scuba divers and have planned annual vacations centered on diving for about two decades.
Because of their interaction with marine life through their dives, Weitz and Dibb have long had an affinity for coral reefs and the surreal images that can be found deep in our oceans.
The band knows that they have an opportunity to turn their spare-time passion for diving into a message for the uninitiated. “I think everybody is aware of the direction the environment is headed over the last few decades — and the ocean has been hit particularly hard for a lot of reasons,” Weitz says. “We thought this project could help highlight that.”
Before committing himself full time to Animal Collective, Weitz had one toe dipped in the water of the D.C. political world, working for a Senate subcommittee on oceans, fisheries and the Coast Guard. He has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in public administration in environmental science and policy from Columbia University. “Tangerine Reef” merges the branches in the road where his career could have gone.
The genesis of the project came about in 2017 as a one-off art exhibition called “Coral Orgy,” which took place at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami. The event was billed as “a site-specific performance celebrating the cosmic synchronicity of sex on the reef.” This theme becomes evident when viewing the album because the imagery of coral is rife with mouth-like orifices enchantingly swaying and gesticulating. That imagery was provided by art collaborative Coral Morphologic, an art-science duo formed by marine biologist Colin Foord and musician J.D. McKay, who filmed all the visuals of the album. The pair were longtime Animal Collective fans and approached the band about a collaboration.
This is the first studio album from Animal Collective with this configuration of the band — Portner, Weitz and Dibb. Noah Lennox, who shares vocal duties with Portner and has released critically acclaimed solo albums under his nom de plume, Panda Bear, was unavailable for this recording session. On “Tangerine Reef,” the band cites the musical influence of “Koyaanisqatsi,” the 1983 experimental film scored by Philip Glass with extended tracking shots of natural scenes around the United States. Glass’s minimalist score was pioneering for soundtracks to come. Portner’s vocals are harmonized with the sharp, laserlike blasts of glitchy, modular music in quick bursts of vocal phrases that come off as chants and incantations for the free-flowing species.
The experimental band, which has its roots in Baltimore, has run the gamut of the modern music narrative over the course of its 20-plus years of existence. In the mid-2000s, after drifting northward to New York City, they were the oddballs making obtuse synth music with albums like “Feels” and “Strawberry Jam,” beloved by their die-hard fans while their contemporaries were strumming away on guitars, clinging to the last vestiges of modern rock-and-roll.
They concluded the aughts in 2009 with their career-defining album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” a rapturous distillation of the band’s more experimental tendencies with a straightforward songcraft of bouncing, viscous sounds. The band rode high atop the wave of indie synth rock churning out of Brooklyn and could have been content to try to recapture magic by making “Merriweather”-esque albums every cycle.
But they delivered a curveball the following year when they released their first go at an audiovisual album, “ODDSAC.” It features vignettes of loosely connected, Lynchian imagery — some of which is acted out by the band members themselves — scored to knotty, visceral arrangements. The band refutes that it was released as a direct rebuke to its Billboard-charting album.
“Originally, we got asked to do a tour documentary, and then it just turned into what it became,” Weitz says. “We got asked a lot with ‘ODDSAC’ if it was a reaction to the popularity of ‘Merriweather.’ But we would point out that we were working on it for four years, before we even recorded ‘Strawberry Jam’; it was just what we wanted to do, and we kind of thought if we enjoyed it, other people would enjoy it, too.”
In true form, they continued their studio output with one of their most challenging albums in 2012, “Centipede Hz.” The album is confrontational, both sonically and structurally. The band admitted in interviews around its release that they made the album with the intention of creating a frenetic composition that would test their physical limits in trying to re-create it in a live setting.
Following that album, the band went on a brief hiatus as the four dispersed around the globe and some started families. They returned in 2016 with the release of “Painting With,” which featured songs more in the vein of the bright arrangements found on “Merriweather” and earned the co-sign of legendary experimental musician John Cale, who featured on the album.
“At this point, we feel like we do have a core audience, and those are the outside thoughts or ears that we think about the most outside our own,” Portner says. “There is a continuous thread, or sound, that goes through all this stuff. Whether it’s something that we’re trying to work on for an album cycle or something like [“Tangerine Reef”] that’s a little more off the cuff.”
By most metrics of what makes a successful indie band these days, Animal Collective checks nearly every box. Their hardcore fans still have the devotion of light Deadheads, and the band fits nicely near the middle to the top of any music festival lineup and can play concert halls around the world.
Today’s streaming-centric world allows bands to be presented in a sort of vacuum that doesn’t require some grand narrative arc potentially wrought with peaks and valleys. “People are discovering us, like high school kids now; there’s a pretty large body of work for them to jump into. For them, it’s not a linear experience of what came after what, and what was going on in their life,” Weitz says.
This became clear to Weitz as he re-listened to some of his favorite bands, like classic rock heroes Pink Floyd and krautrock pioneers Can, and being able to turn his ear toward what is most alluring — like what he expects from any Animal Collective fan.
“To be able to jump in and not exactly know where to go and kind of work your way through the murkiness and see that there are all these different sides,” Weitz says. “You can almost make up your own relationship with the band based on what resonates with you out of context, and I think that’s a cool thing.”