The deeper we get into Animal Collective's Painting With chapter, the more it feels like a real renaissance for the band. As the band themselves described it, the process for the new record felt natural and fun - a far cry for the laborious process it took to put forth Centipede Hz. Spending time in the same city for the first time in a long time, collectively transforming their recording space and writing half the album in the studio, it felt like the band had rekindled some of the spontaneity that inspired much of their earlier work. It's this feeling that the band brings now to their Painting With tour, playing small venues filled to the brim with art ready to be exorcised on stage in real time alongside hundreds of fans. It really doesn't matter who else plays in the same league as Animal Collective these days - they are the absolute best at what they do. Together with the explosive rising hip-hop act Ratking, Animal Collective give us one of the year's most captivating live spectacles.Halfway through the night's opening set from Brooklyn hip-hop collective Ratking, lead emcee Wiki rips into "Piece of Shit" from the group's debut EP, Wiki93, from back in 2012. Four or five numbers before this one, coming from both the 2014 full-length So It Goes and last year's steady EP follow up 700 Fill, Wiki has had time to gain momentum. The tracks and beats from Sporting Life are getting more intense. The crowd is getting into it, regardless of their familiarity with the group. The tune goes off with a bang and a small dance pit breaks out. Wiki flips out, stomping across his small amount of stage with the veracity of a T-Rex, so much so that a drum pad comes tumbling off of Sporting Life's setup and the track comes to a grinding halt. He and Wiki share a life. "We can't play those two back to back anymore", Wiki laughs, "too intense". But Ratking have never been about pitch perfect execution. It's their DIY punk approach to beat-making, rap delivery, and overall aesthetic that have made them one of the most refreshing hip-hop acts of the last couples years, and it's also why they've toured alongside bands as dynamic as thrash-core act Trash Talk to the likes of, well, Animal Collective. Wiki doesn't wait for Sporting Life to finish redoing the setup. He finishes the rest of "Piece of Shit" a cappella, with the same amount of hair-raising fervor as the first half, live-mixed visuals still going behind him. He's even ready to launch into another number a cappella when that one's done. Finally, Sporting Life is back and he sets off their remix/re-up of Phantogram's "Fall In Love" like nothing ever happened. No energy lost whatsoever - technical difficulties or none, Ratking are going to do what they do best. For a crowd dominated by unfamiliars tonight, I'd say that's a pretty spectacular introduction to their new favorite Manhattan band.
On the Centipede Hz tour, Animal Collective took to huge venues (playing a packed-out Paramount here in Seattle), playing as the four piece they'd recorded the album as, running the most straightforward Animal Collective setlist and live progression we'd maybe ever seen. For a group known for its ability to create hypnotic, time-sucking black holes of experimental live sets, a large-capacity theater set of well-defined singles, however excellent (the tour went off so well that the band got a chance to record a fantastic live LP at the 9:30 club in DC) felt very apart from the band's jam-friendly roots.
On the flip side, jams have been essential to Painting With from day 1, and that drum-circle sense of energy carries on from the record into their live sets with incredible grace. For starters, the band has seriously scaled down the venue size on this tour, coming down from the likes of the Paramount to the Neptune (which of course sold out immediately), packed to the gills with fans all eager to get a chance to be part of something this intimate. Furthermore, the visuals themselves feel inviting. The statues on stage are a hazy clear color, ready to be filled and poured-on with light once the bath of psychedelic visuals is unleashed. For the Painting With, Animal Collective put the collective nature back in their name. Where the Centipede tour had a clear line between stage and crowd, here, the two feel like one organism, working off each other in intense relationship.
Animal Collective only rarely break from the new record. One exception is a new single yet to be released 7 inch single. Another is an improvised jam break sung by Panda Bear that sounds a bit like Harry Nillson's "Jump Into The Fire" filtered through a billion synthesizers. The only real crowd service number to mention is Merriweather Post Pavilion classic "Daily Routine", which appears in the encore. Otherwise, it's a Painting With party. Songs like "Summing The Wretch" and "The Burglar" leave very little room to rest when the whole room is dancing maniacally. The band only recycles old material to give the crowd a rest from the frantic dancing of the new album. The quiet break of "Loch Raven" and "The Bees" from Feels was a welcome opportunity to breathe before "Floridada" brought the freaking house down. Of course, the real barn-burner was the encore finale of "Alvin Row", which easily put away the full 12 minutes of the original recording. In context and in a room full of dedicated fans, Animal Collective drew in the lines that tie together their jam-centric roots and their focused and clean-cut present. It's a good reminder that the Baltimore band can still freak you out when they want to. But with the focus and tenacity of their latest material, the invitation to paint in tandem feels as bright and as warm as it was always meant to.
Painting With is out now on Domino Recordings.
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