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Blame it on the Internet: to make as big a splash as possible with a new album release, bands will try a variety of approaches. Whether that’s U2’s latest LP showing up uninvited in everyone’s iTunes, My Bloody Valentine and Beyoncé suddenly dropping fully-formed albums without so much as a preceding whisper, or the Arcade Fire/Aphex Twin method of guerilla marketing, the last few years have seen an uptick on controversial album rollouts (or lack thereof).
One artist who completely bucks this trend is Noah Lennox, otherwise known as Panda Bear. As a founding member of Animal Collective, he’s ushered his textured electronic washes into more and more of the band’s experimental pop songs, and as a whole they’ve released albums every few years like clockwork. That’s allowed Lennox the freedom to take a different tack with his solo material – one of thoughtful but relaxed percolation over extended periods of time. And the biggest part of his process in vetting new material has always been in a live setting. At last Monday’s sold out Music Hall of Williamsburg show, the air crackled with the realization that this could be his last round of performances before finally outing his much anticipated fifth studio album.
His last LP, Tomboy, came out in 2011, after a succession of 7” singles leading up to its release. But he’d been playing that material live for over two years, since his breakout with Person Pitch in 2007. Even given this trajectory, folks have waited a long time for a new Panda Bear record. It’s clear from perusing setlists and YouTube videos of fan-recorded concerts that Lennox has enough to put to tape, but other than tentative, unconfirmed song titles, collectively alluded to under the cryptic heading Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, no official announcements have been made about anything.
Recently, Lennox posted a mix to his website that takes some of the more familiar songs from these live sets and gives them full-scale production, bright dubby beats, and blends them with samples – some sourced from other recordings, but mostly built from his own loops – all of it situated into a nest of sketches and songs that have influenced his most recent work. So it’s assured that something is afoot, but there’s really only one access route to his new music, and that’s to see him play it.
The set started with churning house-esque beats, swiftly merging into towering reverb and textured, multi-layer electronic arrangements. Shoegazey washes exploded into slowly burbling tracks while longtime video collaborator Danny Perez’s captivating projections swirled behind Lennox. Even the Tomboy songs seemed re-tooled to better reflect Lennox’s new sonic ideas, and just as he had with the mixtapes he made and traded with his high school buddies in what would become Animal Collective, he presented it all as a cohesive whole, playing a nonstop, immersive set for over an hour.
Highlights included a song that’s been referred to as “Dark Cloud,” in which Lennox chants vowel sounds though a sharp echo effect to create a rounding pattern of syllables between verses. The drippy percussion of “Sequential Circuits,” another new cut that he’s played live pretty extensively, melted into the thudding bass of the next track while a collage of women in alien make-up writhed through Perez’s video. Though much of Lennox’s lyrics are obscured it was possible to pick out lines here and there. He hit his higher registers by shouting them, adding a sort of ecstatic urgency to translate the emotional import of unintelligible passages. Elsewhere, Lennox let the mixes themselves emote, as with an achingly beautiful harp sample that threaded its way through gorgeous, contemplative “Tropic of Cancer,” which will hopefully make it onto the new record despite its more somber tone.
To take the set as a whole is to get the impression that Lennox is approaching perfection with this collection. This is why it feels so important to be in the crowd at a Panda Bear show; though there is nothing on stage but Lennox and his Korg, flanked by a couple of intermittently flashing strobes, and it’s hard to know how much of what he’s playing is pre-programmed and what sounds he’s creating on stage, the feeling of epiphany comes instead from knowing that Lennox is testing the water, watching things grow and change, gauging the way the songs act together and cause the crowd to react. Even if it isn’t totally spontaneous, there is magic there to witness.