The Animals' latest album, last year's Phantom Power, continues the shiny-happy-people sound but is also as action-packed as X-Men and The Matrix. "Liberty Belle" and "Venus and Serena" are harmonic pop delicacies. "Sex, War and Robots" lopes with ride-'em-cowboy country twang, and the riffs on "Out of Control" stomp like steel-toed boots. But it is the Animals' stage show and the DVD that accompanies Power that emphasize the band's linking of aural and visual elements. The band's Technicolor compositions complement tie-dyed scenes that morph and float like a lava lamp awash in Surround Sound.
"Basically, we were frustrated at going to cinemas and watching movies and the sound being pretty incredible -- the rumble of the bass, sounds of birds flying above your head," says vocalist and guitarist Gruff Rhys. "Then you'd go home and put a record out and it's a bit underwhelming. We wanted to make a record you can play in a cinema."
To accomplish this task, the group focused nearly as much scrutiny on the Power DVD as it did on the album itself.
"We asked [artist and designer] Pete Fowler and his friend Neil McFarland to take the songs and make a visual representation that didn't necessarily have to have the music in it," Rhys says. "There was this visual element to the DVD without it infringing on the music. When the music plays, we wanted something a little more banal."
Indeed, many of the macabre visuals could easily overwhelm the accompanying audio. In "Hello Sunshine," an inky black snake interrupts animated animal coitus. Ghoulish skulls, nuclear-wasteland images and anti-religion sentiments dot the short for "Golden Retriever." The anti-war "The Piccolo Snare" features grainy archival footage of soaring planes and flying bullets morphing into cemetery crosses and blood smears.
You know, the usual.
For the average person, the contrast between the Animals' playful music and Prozac visuals can cause the kind of cranial conundrum that has become fodder for the lab-coat set. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal found that listening to pleasurable tunes causes the brain to think it's partying at Studio 54. Turns out, the areas of the brain activated by listening to a favorite song are the same sections excited by what the scientists call "euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex and drugs of abuse" -- especially cocaine.
Hence, no illegal substances are needed to enhance the Super Furry Animals' already-intoxicating tuneage. But when soothing music is the soundtrack for disturbing images, the effects can send your gray matter into the red. Scientists from the University of Arizona and the University of Wisconsin have found that visuals eliciting negative emotions trigger conflict in the brain. Combining downbeat visuals and upbeat sonics could have disastrous consequences for the warm fuzzies generated by the Animals' tunes. So suggests Jonathan Lewin, Ph.D., a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
"When you look at how the brain regulates itself, oftentimes there are feedback loops," he explains. "So it's likely that negative stimuli from the visual input tends to limit activation in the more pleasure-associated brain regions ... and come up with more of a hybrid between the two."
Which means your head will explode if you watch and listen to the Super Furry Animals at the same time.
But despite what the guys with the pocket protectors say, the complete Super Furry Animals experience remains relentlessly positive. Evidently, no matter what you see, the music is just too damned happy. What other explanation could there be for how the band is able to flout the laws of science?
It could be that the violent images found on the DVD are so cartoonish that they seem more like Pixar than like stark reality. But the band's mind-blowing musical diversity doesn't hurt, either. Its deft ability to skitter between genres like an ADD kid off his Ritalin is a method of movement that ensures the Animals will never dabble in the dark for very long.
"It's one of our weaknesses, definitely, that we can't discipline ourselves to one type of music," Rhys says. "But it's possibly our strength as well. A lot of our songs have their own identity. We just get too excited in the studio, and we want to play around with new instruments and try different styles out. It keeps it interesting for us. This week ... we've been experimenting with cosmic funk."
Rhys reassures us that the band isn't dusting off any Jamiroquai records. Instead, he reveals a better reason for his band's life-affirming vibrations. In the land of normal, science rules many body processes with an iron fist. But in the land of the Super Furry Animals, it is possible for cheerful music, a sparkling live act and a glass-half-full attitude to triumph over the constraints of the mortal mind.
"We like to leave people smiling and happy and elated," Rhys says. "We like to charge people with positive energy. It's a big responsibility to play to a room full of people. I feel very guilty if we play badly and leave an audience at a collective downer. I feel really bad for them. So we like to charge people up with melody and hopefully leave them inspired."