For their Coachella main stage debut, Animal Collective unsurprisingly took the road less traveled. Accompanied by bizarre Technicolor visuals projected onto three massive overhead cubes and two large screens, the set was one part immersive art project, one part fever dream. And rather than use the opportunity to play past favorites, the band focused on new songs.
It was weird and wooly at first. There was strange braying and wailing from the stage, jarring effects collisions and actual screams cutting through the incredibly soupy psychedelic murk. The video feed, designed by Black Dice, initially seemed decipherable to only the most ADHD-addled of minds. There were people running, distorted by static and neon blobs. It was pure overstimulation, with no attempt to ease the crowd into things.
Perhaps it was a way to weed out the group's fair-weather fans -- those noobs who'd only heard that one song about knocking up chicks and buying them houses. Animal Collective never did wind up playing "My Girls," and though there were a few Merriweather Post Pavilion gems scattered throughout, most were roughed up with grinding guitar and gritty synthesized textures. Anything familiar seemed warped by a fun house mirror -- strange and just a little bit ugly.
But it got easier from there, ironically as the band ventured deeper into uncharted territory. The majority of their set, it seemed, was devoted to new material. The unreleased stuff appeared to extend their last album's forays into electronic territory, but onto more beat-based terrain -- the kind of ideas Radiohead pioneered on Kid A, but even more progressive and free-wheeling, like a translation of the classic jam session into digital terms.
Some tracks were minimal, just blurts of synth and song over bassy thudding and odd blips and bloops, while others were thick and aqueous, cool in tone and rich with sound. Here, the visuals came into proper sync, perfectly mood-matching the music and, more importantly, giving the band free reign to do their thing while the eyes of the crowd were lost in the color-saturated stew. Soon it was clear: Animal Collective were absolutely in the zone.
Ultimately, the show played out like a stunningly executed DJ set, marked by distinguishable songs beat-matched and blended together as one long stream of psychedelic consciousness -- the concert remixed. At one point, what sounded like a Fela Kuti sample crept into the mix, building to a rhythmic squall. Avey chanted like a chieftain over it in an unknown tongue, while little keyboard bumps pushed the song onward.
Sometimes they played in the deep end a little too long -- offering up long seconds of pure static, or mechanical clanking that knew no rhythm -- but they always found a way offset their innate weirdness, and made up for a muddled start with a pure pop finish: a straight-ahead version of the über-catchy "Summertime Clothes." When the song ended, it didn't fade, it just stopped, shocking the crowd back to reality.
"Thanks so much for having us," said Avey, his only words to the audience all night. And like that, the dream was over.