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Review: Panda Bear Explores the Rabbit Hole on ‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Label: Domino

Once, an Animal Collective show had no discernable order. Bucking the traditional rise/dip/rise/peak/crescendo continuum that a conventional live performance takes, the group — Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin in the peak years of Sung Tongs (2004) and Feels (2005) — developed an often polarizing reputation of winding through two hours of sweat-soaked sonic caprice and fitful expanding and contracting soundscapes that only offered brief hints of recognizable singles, often ultimately totaling only five songs or so.

As their popularity exploded — thanks in part to the radio-friendly “My Girls” on 2009’s critical and commercial zenith, Merriweather Post Pavilion — the trio’s live act (Deakin was on hiatus for that album cycle) shifted to grander venues and normalized into a (slightly) more traditional song/song/song format. Now, the band’s second-most recent record didn’t dead-end AC’s predilection for experimentation (2012’s piercingly glitchy Centipede Hz doth spilleth over with eccentricities) but in terms of the impromptu jam sessions their live shows once espoused, die-hards might have wondered, “Where did the weird go?”

The answer lies with Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear. Despite building his popularity on two pop-aware records (2007’s Person Pitch and 2011’s Tomboy), the 36-year-old returns to, embraces, and (in some cases) redefines the experimental music he popularized with Animal Collective on his fourth solo album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.

Deriving influence from ’70s dub duo albums like King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown and Augustus Pablo Meets Lee Perry & the Wailers Band — rather than the glimmers of Brian Wilson in Person Pitch or Perry himself on TomboyGrim Reaper finds Lennox filling in the sonic blanks and playing musical manifest destiny. The record features some genuinely in-focus moments on the nearly danceable “Mr Noah” and the similarly reverberating “Boys Latin,” both already commissioned with single duty, but as a whole, Grim Reaper is more interested in filling its proverbial plate with as many flavors as his aural smorgasbord can offer.

As usual, his imagination is up to the task. The record’s opener, “Sequential Circuits,” with its minor-key organ drones and sleep machine-like burbles, is at once peaceful and vaguely ominous, hinting at the gamut-running avalanche of ideas to come. “Davy Jones Locker” — another passing reference to death — is a 36-second cut that bloops and drones with sharply fuzzy light saber samples. “Boys Latin” surfs another wave of low-toned samples as Lennox’s signature layered vocals echo with cryptic, unintelligible lyrics. “Tropic of Cancer” is an angel’s wing brush of harp-strewn sweetness, and lead single “Mr. Noah” has a wobbly, whining start before forward-marching into an echoing cacophony of chantable “ay-ay-ay”s — one of only a few legible hooks within Lennox’s beautifully confounding fifth effort. Generally speaking, it’s where the weird went.

The absence of memorable choruses isn’t to suggest that Grim Reaper is less worthy of your time than its predecessors. It’s not necessarily weaker than the freak-folkish Young Prayer (2004), the pop-minded Person Pitch, or the frostily electronic Tomboy — just different. It’s his most explorative effort yet, in a career not lacking in curiosity. With his sincere reluctance to create the same thing twice, Lennox understands how to be as fluid and malleable as the very esoteric orchestrations he births. Grim Reaper is an unedited adventure of blossoming soundscapes, vision-blurring, dissonant melodies, and cheerful robot dance numbers like “Principe Real.” It hardly hits the same note twice. And if this is what meeting the grim reaper sounds like, then let’s draw up a will and meet Lennox at the cemetery gates.