What did surprise, however, was just what a tight and muscular live act they have become. Touring for Merriweather as a trio of sound designers manning a panoply of sonic circuitry, the psychedelic explorers burnished their reputation as a jam band for the Pitchfork set.
Now, with the return of multi-instrumentalist Josh "Deakin" Dibb and new material that sounds like a dense, claustrophobic burrow beneath its predecessor's summer stargaze, Animal Collective are focused and effective like never before. Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox, behind a real drum kit for the first time in years, added propulsive power to the compound-meter grooves of "Lion in a Coma," while Dibb's debut in the band as a lead vocalist on "Wide Eyed" saw added support from the band's battery of synths and switchboards. David "Avey Tare" Portner's screams emphasized the garage-rock spirit behind "Today's Supernatural" and "Peacebone," while Brian "Geologist" Weitz wrung varying forms of low-end sound from his hardware - either digital slabs of sub-bass or the type of melodic buoyancy native to classic reggae. In a set brimming with motives and gestures, none were wasted.
The few times Animal Collective drifted toward more improvisatory territory likewise benefited from an exacting focus. "Applesauce" leaked naturally into the drip-drop dub echoes of a Jamaican drainpipe, while the East Asian scales in "Pulleys" yielded to an interstellar chasm that was not far from the coldest and most lonesome of Pink Floyd's stratospherics.
When all the tense and gorgeous swells finally resolved into ecstatic takes on a couple old favorites like "My Girls" and "Brother Sport," it seemed like the band had won a hard-earned victory - an audience taken happily off guard.