ALBUM REVIEW: Panda Bear/Sonic Boom, Reset
The best aspect of psychedelic music is its timelessness. Trippiness is the through-line and therefore, the guiding beam of light that helps to transcend genre, space and time. Todd Rundgren’s fearless, L/R headphone hoppy opus A Wizard / A True Star is a rainbow explosion of guitar solos and effect pedal freakouts that sounds as fresh as it did in the ‘70s. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE’s ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH jumps from one ambien-induced sequence to the next, bringing the listener from peaceful sleep to emergency fire escape exit to old age within minutes. And who can forget The Flaming Lips, who are still conducting worthwhile experiments well into their 50s and 60s? With the inherent line-blurring in psych music, the necessary juxtaposition has to come from the songwriting. Without proper structuring in that regard, all you get is a rainbow pile of goo with no heart.
Aside from The Flaming Lips, I can’t think of a more long lasting psych outfit than Animal Collective that is still functional. Even when the band was in their low period post-Centipede Hz, members like Avey Tare and especially Panda Bear were still holding down the fort and keeping the dream from dying. The two of them, more than even their bandmates, understood that tunes are backbones for the sludge to lay upon. Even the murkiest solo moments like “Mr Noah” had clear and memorable verses, and don’t even get me started on the underappreciated genius of Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks in that department. Animal Collective was able to bridge that gap between the new era and the psychedelic old guard because they had a destination to build back to. The Lips and especially Tame Impala have their roots firmly in The Beatles catalog, and AnCo are clearly of The Beach Boys lineage. No good bridge is without its pillars. For Tame Impala, there is Dungen and the disco pioneers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. For someone like Panda Bear, you get a duo like Spacemen 3.
You can hear clear reverberations of “The Sound of Confusion” by Spaceman 3 in the joyful bliss of Strawberry Jam, just replace the guitars with keyboards and insane percussion. Peter Kember of thar group, aka Sonic Boom, went on to work directly with Bear on his most warby project to date, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. The concept was influenced by dub music, comic books and the idea that as one part of a person dies, another part is reborn. Such is the nature of their new, excellent collaborative endeavor Reset. It was hard to listen to this and give it such a high grade considering that the latest Animal Collective project also dealt in similarly dreadful beauty, but Reset could not be more dissimilar to it. For starters, recentering Panda Bear as the main character means ‘60s vocal pop – namely doo wop and Pet Sounds – becomes the primary well of influence. While Time Skiffs from AnCo was an overwhelming VR immersion of a record, Reset is much more grounded and accessible.
From start to finish this record is warm and fuzzy without being overly sentimental or overly simple. The opener “Gettin’ To the Point” does just that, It’s a song about not beating around the bush. Whether that be hearing harsh truths in a relationship or pursuing goals aggressively, it’s a short and sweet ode to not fucking around. Sonic Boom’s production quirks come into play immediately with ticky-tacky percussion, bird noises and laser synth propulsions. Even with all these bells and whistles, the core of the song are Panda Bear’s ever-boyish vocals and this tight guitar melody. This track sets the tone, and the rest of the record never strays from this winning formula for even a moment. The follow-up “Go On” and the superb single “Edge of the Edge” emphasizes choral repetition as a trusty instrument that helps to guide the psychedelia. Also in the mix is spare but effective use of clapping that adds to that homely feeling, while strange electronic noises break the comfort like cracking an egg. “Edge of the Edge” does full doo wop with the “bum bum bum bum” background vocals without going Silk Sonic with it (aka corny nostalgia). Just moments later, we get to experience a slightly darker edge with “In My Body”. Here, those aforementioned “strange electronic noises” – along with some warped shakers and ghostly vocals – swirl to create an uneasy atmosphere. “Into my body / It’s in my body” Panda Bear calls out and it's ambiguous whether this is a good or a bad thing. I imagine one of these bugs from The Mummy crawling under his skin, but he’s too zenned out to see this as troubling. Just my read on the situation.
While I think this album falters just a bit vibe-wise towards the middle half of the album, it picks right back up on the tail-end of “Danger” and beyond. The album functions best when Bear’s vocals are at the forefront, supported by the heavy and ever-changing production from Boom. “Livin’ in the After” veers left into this strange cross between chamber pop and click-clacking island vibrations. The sincerity of the strings, the fun of the calypso and the goofiness of Sonic Boom’s little additions just make for an engaging listen. The closer, aptly titled “Everything’s Been Leading To This”, pits Bear against himself in two opposite pitches over a racing and playful beat. “Here it comes! Here it comes! Here it comes!” he decrees over these blooping electronics, almost accepting death or life with open arms. It's the obscurity of the lyrics that really sells this record for me in the end. Just like it started, it goes right for the jugular on all fronts without getting explicit. All the fear, ignorance, troubles, accomplishments, pride, sorrow, etc. that life brings is brought together into a cohesive force that addresses all and none of those things at once. It’s the emotional reset that we all need in 2022. Maybe clapping is such a driving force of the album because it wants you to give yourself a hand for still being alive to listen to it.