Animal Collective / GFOTY – Manchester Ritz

by Elliot Davies

Animal Collective Manchester Ritz

Animal Collective make everyone happy and give a practical demonstration on how to play electronic music live. But first, GFOTY bounds on the stage, determined to deafen, braving to baffle.

GFOTY is a figurehead of the PC Music collective. That means she specialises in the sort of metamodern post-post-post-post-ironic parodic music that dares you to take it seriously, only to mock you when you do just that. I CAN BE…CONCEPTUAL.

She’s flanked by two muscly masked dancers wearing some marvellous dapper threads emblazoned with bleeding skulls. The three of them grind their way through a bizarre 26 minute performance art routine set to a shrill, trilling, jarring chart cheese helium poptimism playlist.

This is critic-bait. It’s impossible to take it on its own terms. It demands to be viewed through about a thousand layers of irony. It’s begging to be labelled as pretentious and cynical appropriation. It’s like a Tumblr argument and a Soundcloud mixtape had a baby. It’s impossible to look away.

And anyway, GFOTY subsequently proved herself to be a woman after our own hearts:

Too real for London, yeah?

On record Animal Collective are like Marmite. But live, they’re like avocado dipped in Marmite, then rolled in a mixture of ground olives, raisins and kale, and then washed down with a nice cool glass of tomato juice.

If this Buzzfeed list of divisive foods is anything to go by, that makes them pretty darn divisive.

Some people leave Animal Collective shows feeling somewhat cheated. Some leave feeling bemused, others outright angry.

Others, though, leave Animal Collective shows feeling renewed. It’s like – the trees have finally started talking back to me, and they’re saying some really nice things.

Guess which camp I fall into!

For most of their career, Animal Collective have allowed their songs to grow organically across dozens of live jams. It’s perhaps for this reason that their live shows don’t work for everyone. When you show up expecting to hear a note-perfect rendition of My Girls, but instead hear a 16 minute freeform melting dub exploration with occasional primal scream breakdowns, well. You’re probably not going to go home happy, are you?

But they’ve flipped their MO. For their 10th album, Painting With, rather than nurturing their songs through live improvisation, they hunkered down in the studio with the apparent intention of crafting a more succinct and accessible collection. So for the ensuing tour, rather than giving us a glimpse into their exploratory approach to songwriting, they’ve instead had to work out how to replicate these meticulously-arranged songs in a live setting.

The end result is the most satisfying and engaging performance I’ve ever seen these guys put on – and I’ve been attending their shows for 10 years now. For the first time ever, this was an Animal Collective show that felt like it was working for everyone.

Every time I watch Animal Collective live, I get engrossed. But nonetheless, I can always pinpoint the moment at which large swathes of the crowd tune out. It’s usually when they gleefully allow their jams to tumble down the rabbit hole. I love these moments – yet many don’t. They don’t want to drift. They want to dance. Or something.

Well, tonight, Animal Collective are happy to let everyone dance. For what must be the first time since Panda Bear sat behind the kit circa Spirit They’ve Vanished, they’ve a full-time drummer onstage with a full-size kit! I’m not quite sure who exactly that drummer is. I’ve heard a rumour that it might be Jeremy Hyman from Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. But whoever he is, he’s boss.

He gives the songs the sort of punchy muscularity that’s not really possible with electronic beats. And the need to keep time with a drummer seems to have reigned in the band’s more out there qualities. Yep, they still allow their music to evolve in real time, but gone are the queasy trips across time and space. In their place is a ceaseless succession of invigorating jams that appear to appeal to all.

I miss the psychedelic odysseys. I do. But it’s nice to finally attend an Animal Collective show where it feels like everyone’s enjoying it as much as I am.

And there’s still much to lose yourself in. On this tour they’re playing essentially the same songs every night – the majority of Painting With, the occasional Martha Reeves cover, a couple of dreamy deep cuts from Feels, and Alvin Row – a true blast from the past! A real treat for the hardcore fans.

But the thing is, though they’re playing essentially the same songs, every night they do so in a different order. And they like to keep the momentum going. Songs bleed seamlessly into one another. So because there’s a different setlist each night, every night you’ll hear fresh mutations. The sonic swamp that carries Vertical into Spilling Guts will sound worlds apart from the glittering digital forest that’s evoked when Vertical segues into On Delay.

If you know what I mean.

Live drumming, live improvisations, not a single laptop on stage and all sounds and vocals manipulated live in real time – this is how you do live electronic music! This is the sort of thing that inspires devotion, that drives people to follow a bunch of musicians on tour and get lightning skulls tattooed on their arms.

If I could see Animal Collective live every night for the rest of my life, I think I would. No two nights would ever quite be the same.

The Manchester Ritz sells beer in giant two-pint-size glasses. They’re more like buckets, really, and they’re so bulky they’ll make anyone feel like a hobbit. It’s perhaps because I downed one of them that I boarded the wrong train on the way home. It turns out that there’s more than one way to get to Southport. I ended up on an eerie deserted platform in a place called Daisy Hill.

In a mild panic I interrogated the information boards, hoping to find a way out.

“There are no trains,” said a voice behind me. “But there are buses you can get.”

“Thanks,” I said.

But when I turned round there was nobody there.