Panda Bear Opera House, Toronto ON, May 20

Panda Bear Opera House, Toronto ON, May 20
Photo: Shane Parent
8
Word is that Noah Lennox is working on a new album, and unless he's got a good dozen or so surplus new songs lying around, he played almost all of the tentatively titled Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper last night at Toronto's Opera House. The bulk of his set — namely, the entire hour-and-a-half of it, except for two songs — eschewed Lennox's excellent back catalogue in favour of new material, and by gum, it worked.

Noah Lennox walked out unassumingly onto a darkened stage, on which only a small tabletop full of gear and a crazy amount of wires was waiting. He was undaunted by the audience's silence as he slowly began layering a shiny metallic synth build over trickling rain sticks. Lennox's trademark drawl, laden with effects to the point that it was garbled, made an early appearance, and also a rare one; his new material is largely instrumental, making his live setup more DJ set than rock show.

Lennox transitioned his new songs from one to another without breaks: drum ticks flickered into gated guitar chords and squelchy sub bass preceded chopped-up vocals as images of candy, reptile scales, flowers and fruit kaleidoscoped colourfully behind him and strobes emphasized the fluctuating tempos.

The audience stood still for most of the show, but they seemed more transfixed than bored, coming to life as Lennox played a jaunty tune that sprang to life midway, when he triggered a kick drum-snare combo from his pad. One particularly beat-driven song, marked by a jittery vocal turn, built to a huge climax, and was met by a wave of applause that filled the Opera House. Panda Bear's music has always been more interesting than exciting, so though his feast for the ears worked just as well with one's eyes closed as open, I caught myself drifting off, trance-like as I stared into the swirling visuals, more than once.

One new track began with harp plucks and slow, drone-y vocals that floated between harsh, nasal vocals and sweet falsetto croons, a lullaby whose wailed ending sent shivers up the spine. Percussion that sounded like a shaking pocket of change and more harps, this time spiralling, provided the base for another, which also featured a memorable descending chorus melody.

By the main set's end, Lennox was adding more groove, and the crowd, despite not recognizing a single note, was responding — no mean feat for any artist, let alone one with a back catalogue as beloved as Panda Bear's. When a vocal sample and a THX test-worthy hum led to his only words thus far (a thank you to the crowd, opener DJ Dog Dick and the sound guy) and his exit, the rapturous applause he received was well-deserved.

Only in his encore did Panda Bear play recognizable tunes: a slowly coagulating "Last Night at the Jetty," the ringing, funereal "Scheherazade" and a more chaotic than usual "Surfer's Hymn." The familiar songs were a comforting way to end the night, but Lennox's captivating set proved that sometimes, the way forward is the most rewarding.

Editor's note: this review originally referred to "Scheherazade" as a new song, and has been updated.