May 2, 2005

Animal Collective unleashes quirky rock at the U of C

Much to the glee of noise rockers throughout Chicago, WHPK and student group the Hive collaborated to put on the free Animal Collective show last Friday night. The Animal Collective, a four-person group from Brooklyn, is one of the most interesting experimental music groups around. And, more importantly, they appear in publicity photos wearing animal costumes. Their last full-length album, Sung Tongs, sounds like the Beach Boys—if the Beach Boys were naked, lost in the forest, and on acid, with only a drum machine and their guitars for protection. The kids in the front row were wearing animal masks, no doubt waiting for someone to scream "tigers-tigers-tigers-tigers-tigers" in their whiskered faces.

But before these intrepid musicians took the stage, U of C's own Health and Beauty and Animal Collective's touring partner, Ariel Pink, had their turns. Health and Beauty played fairly generic, downbeat rock music that brought to mind lots of other bands. In addition to their lackluster sound, Health and Beauty had difficulty engaging the audience, despite their best efforts to get a sing-a-long going. The people in animal masks appeared displeased. But it's hard to blame Health and Beauty, who aren't exactly the right kind of band to open for more experimental bands like Ariel Pink and Animal Collective. They seemed out of place on the lineup and got a lukewarm response.

Ariel Pink came on next, and the room became an echo chamber for the remainder of their set. The best way to describe Ariel Pink's music is to imagine the keyboard player and vocalist of New Order replaced by escapees from an insane asylum. The singer's mic was set to the highest level of delay to insure that anything he sang was incomprehensible. Throughout the show, he paced back and forth, shaking his fist, as though he were Dustin Hoffman performing some kind of impassioned Shakespearean soliloquy in a lost scene of Rain Man.

Ariel Pink is interesting and strange, much like Animal Collective, but far less fun. The animal mask people seemed more pleased by Ariel Pink's antics, but behind their fake kitty noses, their faces were still filled with anticipation for the next act. Ariel Pink's solipsistic stage show was able to grab the crowd better than Health and Beauty's; however, their posturing wasn't enough to truly capture the audience members' imaginations. Ariel Pink's strangeness just isn't particularly fascinating, at least not compared to Animal Collective.

Animal Collective is noise rock and experimentation the way it's meant to be done. Their music is like surrealism—something's not quite right about it. It's really weird, but for some reason, you like it anyway. Animal Collective's set didn't sound much like any of their albums. It was one long, unbroken performance where songs crystallized out of trance-like, ambient interludes before melting away back into eerie noise.

The best moments in the show came when the band exploded into harsh distortion and screaming. They would start to dance around like the aggressive bone-wielding monkeys in 2001, thrashing their guitars and banging on drums. At times, the show felt more like a tribal ritual than a rock concert.

That's about the most you can ask of a noise rock band: to bring rock music back to something pure and primordial. The walls of distortion and rhythm that exploded out of Animal Collective made their stage presence a formidable one. The animal mask folks were really feeling this. They were a little disappointed, though, I'm sure, to discover that the band wouldn't be performing in animal masks themselves. They died a little bit inside, and tears formed behind their latex eyeholes.

It was hard to differentiate between the individual songs that emerged from the wall of noise, but when distorted versions of "Kids on Holiday" and "We Tigers" appeared out of the dreamy interludes, the concert reached its ecstatic peak. It's hard to gauge just how long the Animal Collective played. The way the show was so seamlessly structured captivated the audience and made all sense of time disappear.

Animal Collective is a great live band. They are able to make challenging music into an awesome rock show. Kudos to the Hive and WHPK for getting them to play a concert free for students right here on campus. The masked animal people owe you big time.