Experimental electronic artist Panda Bear opens his fifth solo album, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” on a gentle note. Starting track “Sequential Circuits” offers a slow, textured piece built on synth organs and a sound like gurgling water. Noah Lennox’s massive harmonies stretch and echo, rich and somber. The song then fades to a closing drone, a sound like a man growling.
Though “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” is not explicitly a concept album, it progresses through what feels like several movements after the opening track. Emerging from the ending drone of “Sequential Circuits,” lead single “Mr. Noah” begins with the distorted sounds of a whimpering dog and then bursts with sharp, pulsing synths. Smooth harmonies grow and contrast with the song’s sizzling electronics. If that isn’t enough, the song’s chorus is exceptionally catchy, with Lennox’s voice dropping and stretching the final word of each line.
“Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” is ambitious. Recurring swells and gurgles lend cohesiveness to much of the album, though each song has its own distinct character. “Crosswords” eschews the grimier textures of “Mr. Noah” for a lively dance beat with echoing piano-chord accents.
From “Mr. Noah” through the album’s fifth track, “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,” the album grows increasingly ethereal. The latter track is awash in shimmering synths and the rush of water.
A distinctive tone shift, signifying a new movement, is felt with the song “Boys Latin,” which features a rumbling bassline and chorus of echoing call-and-response vocals. Unlike others, the song remains flat from start to finish, but segues nicely into the lengthier “Come to Your Senses.”
The pulsing bass of “Come to Your Senses” intensifies over its seven-minute duration, with the repeated chant of “Are you mad?” Thematically, the song embodies the album’s overall themes of artistic uncertainty and self-doubt, but ends with the cryptically uplifting declaration “It’s inside one and all.”
Late album tracks “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer,” coupled with 18 seconds of noise titled “Shadow of the Colossus,” form a sweeping, contemplative suite. “Tropic of Cancer” is one of Panda Bear’s most unique compositions to date, built primarily on harp and with a warm, lush production. Lennox’s voice stands on its own, soaring above the harp in a plaintive refrain of “And you can’t come back/ You won’t come back/ You can’t come back to it.” “Lonely Wanderer,” based on piano and the occasional dark, foreboding pulse of bass, is a spare, beautiful ballad.
The album’s closing three songs from its final movement — a synthesis of energy and lush sound. Here, Panda Bear demonstrates he can craft the perfectly danceable, catchy song, still bristling with unusual chirps and other electronic effects.
The album’s closing track, “Acid Wash,” is Lennox at his finest. Drum strikes that sound like the splashing of puddles blend with triplet-figure synths and a constant bass rumble, resulting in an instant uplifting classic. The song’s melody is an affirmation that the titular encounter with the Grim Reaper has ended in triumph; Panda Bear declares, “As a flame/ Gives a ruin a new name/ With a yell/ As you’ve won against the dark.”
“Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” is outstanding. As the artist’s most complex, cohesive solo effort to date, it represents a real step forward in style and production from 2011’s still- excellent “Tomboy.” The album stands out in the heavily-saturated genre of experimental electronic music, with its signature vocal harmonies and blend of real and synth instruments. Defying genre conventions and never content to rely on his old tricks, Panda Bear has truly outdone himself.