There are few bands around at the moment that are as original as Animal Collective. I’ve known this much for a while. Over the last few years I’ve listened to little bits of their stuff and enjoyed it but never really got “into it”. I probably couldn’t name you a song without looking. Upon my arrival at The Warehouse Project in Old Trafford last week I was essentially a fresh pair of ears. I had no idea what to expect.
The front of the stage was lined with large inflatable teeth. A top set suspended from the ceiling and a bottom set just visible above the sea of heads in the already half full room. Behind the teeth three enormous multicoloured cones bent over the stage to form the roof of the mouth and a white sheet for a projector screen hung from the backmost cone. Two girls appeared on stage and spent a while trying to do something with a bunch of white mesh, which was eventually thrown over one of the girls like a shambolic wedding dress. The other girl, sporting a hi-vis dress hit something with a drum stick triggering a funky pre-recorded track to start before disappearing off stage while the shambolic bride descended out of view towards the barriers at the front of the stage whilst shrieking like Kate Bush on speed. This was certainly no usual way to begin a set. This was Prince Rama. The first song ended and the bride girl climbed back on stage, threw off her veil to reveal a ridiculously 80s King Charles haircut, silver warpaint on her face and the most bizarre pair of hotpants I have ever seen. The hi-vis girl returned to the stage and stood behind a set of drums and symbols. She was joined by a long-haired, scruffily dressed bassist who looked like he might have played with Nirvana.
The bride-turned-King-Charles front woman played a long, deep, rumbling note on her keyboard and the drums and bass kicked in and the echoing, ethereal Kate Bush like vocals soared over the top. The drums were more often than not, full of Eastenders style fillers, with the standing kit (without kick drum) supplemented by pre-programmed MIDI beats. The bass often merged seamlessly with the synths and keyboards of the front woman, so much so that it was often difficult to tell which was which. The songs were intricately put together and paid homage to 80s synth pop and 70s prog. Occasionally the band members would swap. Occasionally the hi-vis drummer would sing, and on several songs the front woman played guitar, but the songs kept on coming, the same 70s/80s synth-infused prog- electro with Kate Bush style vocals. Some songs were grandiose and full of pomposity, others teetered on the edge of insanity, leaving me feeling slightly uneasy. The songs did seem to lack any obvious melody though this may have been down to poor sound-quality, the performance sounding hollow, too soaked in reverb and unable to fill the enormous, cavernous Victoria Warehouse venue.
The set ended with both girls singing and dancing in a space cleared at the front of the audience and the bassist switching to synth and flashing a torch out across the room. The room was full and brimming with anticipation by the time the projector turned on and flashing colours filled not only the white screen but the entire insides of the giant mouth of the stage and Animal Collective calmly walked onstage. As they took their positions they waved to crowd and the room erupted. One thing was clear from the beginning and that was the amount of texture and layering the band would employ throughout the set. One band member, dressed in an orange t-shirt stood behind a massive rig of equipment at the back fiddled with knobs to create strange buzzing sounds and playing weird samples. The drums were laden with extra electronics and both the guys at the front of the stage were surrounded by keyboards and other devices as well as occasionally used guitars. It was the drummer who began the vocals, crisp and clear with a hint of Brian Wilson/ Beach Boys about it. The keyboardist sat stage left, who ended up taking on most of the vocal duties joined in with his stronger, more abrasive voice, while the guitarist/keyboardist stood stage right, dressed entirely in white provided some extra layering to the vocal harmonies. The predominant sounds throughout were the sounds of buzzing mosquitoes, rumbling propellers and jungle noises created by the guy in the orange t-shirt the back. And so they were off, the songs becoming more like experimental soundscapes than on their records. The sound encapsulating a wide range of influences all mashed together in an incredibly tight but almost bewildering stage show. At times it felt more like an art exhibition than a gig, with quick, tickety tackety drums and strange ambient buzzing sounds. At other times it felt more like a rave with powerful synth driven 90s house music. Other times it felt more Caribbean with music hall and reggae beats and pumped up vocals. And very often the beats sounded almost African. The vocals stayed mainly true to their Beach Boys style harmonies and punchy rock ‘n’ roll melodies, while the music stayed very much true to their buzzing samples and bleeping synths. Where guitars occasionally became involved, they were often difficult to hear or distinguish from the buzzing and bleeping of the electronic backline. Aside from a five to ten minute ambient period in the middle of the set where it seemed like a single note was being drawn out eternally, the set remained fairly constant if not in beats or song structure but at least in sound and style.
While the execution of each song was flawless, each layer meticulously written and designed, and with extraordinary lighting and visuals, it often seemed the band was trying to be too clever, adding too many layers of synths and experimental noises from the guy with all the buttons and knobs at the back. At times it was awe-inspiring watching them go at it, deftly playing extremely complicated music, but very often the melodies became lost in amongst the noise.
Towards the end of the set the songs became louder, the glow-sticks began to come out and it began to feel like a rave. Those at the very front began to jump up and down in the grip of euphoria. Those further back watched on, still enraptured by the performance, closing their eyes on particular beats when the lights would flash almost blindingly brightly in sync to the music.
It was the three songs during the encore which were the best of the night though. They stripped back the layers of synth and samples which had been faultless but overcooked during the majority of the set and the melodies and the emotion of the songs began to show through building up to a beautiful ending.
There is no doubt that Animal Collective are one of the most groundbreaking, forward thinking bands around today. Their stage show was incredible, the music was expertly arranged, performed with scary precision and incredible energy too. There is no doubt that this is a band that, although already over a decade into their career, will go on to scale greater heights and push into new frontiers. It seemed at times that they were trying to be too clever. My friend who I was at the gig with said to me afterwards: “It was like an electronic Beach Boys with perhaps a bit too much of the electronic and not enough of the Beach Boys.” This was probably a fair analysis of the show, and one of the conundrums that any experimental band faces. How far is it possible to go without sacrificing the song? Bands such as Sigur Ros and Mogwai walk that tightrope with great ease. Animal Collective, for all their brilliance seemed not to realise there even was a tightrope to be walked.