Panda Bear’s “Afterburner”, from last year’s Tomboy, is both immeasurably huge, and outrageously simple. Its efflorescence hinges on predictable but shifting melodic patterns, repeated on guitar and bass, and a clockwork rhythm that is seemingly unaware of the beautiful carnage unfurling above it. Effects wash over the song like tidal waves; the guitar is drenched in painfully beautiful reverb, and all manner of synthetic space-noises eddy and buckle throughout. At the song’s apotheosis, it achieves a chaotic state of bliss, and the listener must surely surrender. One thing that doesn’t give in, however, is that ever-present beat. Occasionally filled out by wooden blocks and pattering hi-hat, it is a rock that can’t be washed away by the powerful ocean around it.
I found a likeness in a song recorded almost forty years prior to “Afterburner”. Nestling in the middle of Bobby Womack’s landmark Understanding LP is a scuzzy pocket-epic called “Simple Man” which, honestly, would not have sounded out of place on a collection of Can B-sides. Atop a krautrocky rhythm rages a dense frenzy of electric piano, guttural machine noises, Womack’s crazed vocals, and his fluid guitar-playing. The beat is unwavering, and holds down all the dizzying madness overhead. It’s a scary cocktail, but appropriately, the song struts and gallops rather than swampily creeping along like a Can cut.
These two songs, so disparate in their origins and creations, can nonetheless be reconciled. They exhibit strong motion where there could so easily be a stodgy mess. The density in both tracks’ production is overwhelming, but not disconcerting—and you can thank their motorik beats for that.