What is a visual album without its visual component? How much do the visuals act as an informing guide for the intent and focus of the album? Frank Ocean’s Endless, for instance, was overshadowed by its counterpart Blonde. Endless was perceived as more of an experiment than an album, a more procedural lattice of sounds and thoughts that showcased the artist at work (quite literally in the accompanying film, as he built a set of speakers). Others saw Endless as a brilliant and misunderstood work teeming with micro epics and boldness in its direction.
Animal Collective, at this point, can rest easy knowing their critical status and ambitions as artists have been met many times over. They wrote Merriweather Post Pavilion, ‘nuff said. So with Tangerine Reef, they explore another boundary of music, the visual album. However, the aquatic themed, mesmerizing acidic nautical visual narrative that coincides with it is of little use in estimating the worth of the album’s sound.
The tracks “Hair Cutter” and “Buffalo Tomato” are flooded with Avey Tare’s ghostly distorted vocals and quiet accents along belts of synths. Every ounce of tension that floods the listener feels primed for a roaring tempo change, or explosive chord to shake the synapses, but instead the tracks simmer in long droning periods. The bombast doesn’t need to arrive, it’s just that its singular direction never feels earned.
There’s very little movement on the album as a whole, there’s more (appropriately) organic textures and warm, resonant spaces here. Quaint elements of dub spill out of samplers with sharp cracks, especially on the later half of “Inspector Gadget” and “Buxom.” But the pop-driven, stark psychedelia of the band doesn’t ever reach the pop phase here. “Hip Sponge” comes close, but is so anemic in its sound that it feels incomplete.
“Best of Times” has enough experimental glitches and bellowing yowls and snarling windows of synth terror that between Avery’s opposed rhythm and tonally separate vocals, there’s more chaos here than any semblance of order. Which stands in perfect contrast to the serene “Jake and Me,” with its fuzzy and muffled basslines that correspond with alternating vocalizations, a lovely call and response of fluttering beauty, a seance of sounds. It’s a significant high point of the album. “Palythoa” comes close to eclipsing this in its sheer grandeur and gloating sense of space and robustness.
The core issue when a visual album relies so much on its visuals to set its sonic direction, is a matter of over-influence. Of relying on context outside of what is most implicit, and what is most important; the soundscapes and compositions that should define the visuals. Tangerine Reef is at its most gripping and enthralling when it is serene. That’s the highest order it can strive to attain, and maybe that’s the intention. But a significant lack of dynamism, and any sense of immediacy or percussive accents leaves this album adrift in an aimless sea without its visual component.