(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Recording review - The Octopus Project, Fever Forms (2013)

Art-school music offers a suite of musical facets

The octopus has many arms and sometimes, the left, er.. tentacle can’t quite guess what the others are up to. Rather than settle for a definable sound, The Octopus Project juggles an odd collection of eclectic electronica and various fragments of indie rock ‘n’ roll. Driving motorik rhythms may veer off into synth pop or frantic 8-bit scrabbling, but somehow the band forges an ADHD mish-mash of influences into an engaging, playful fusion.

Throughout Fever Forms, guitars and synthesizers collide and blend DNA. On “The Falls”, an ambient wash heralds the first faltering steps of the song before it acquires an insistent guitar riff. The keyboard resonates and repeats the occasional note. The band slides into a steady trance groove, wrapped in shiny, tin-foil guitar feedback. At just over three minutes, the song quickly evolves into a Krautrock exploration, but the catchy descending waterfall of notes remains the central focus.

In sharp contrast, the following track, “Pyramid Kosmos”, jump cuts the vibe, tying a videogame theme to anxious, skittering beats. But even here, analog touches flavor the digital stew, adding tastes of whining guitar and cymbal shimmer. It’s an unsettling transition, but there’s little time to dwell as the tune quickly zips off into a tripping, chaotic jumble of sound, anchored to off-beat rhythms. While never soothing, the track is wrapped in dense layers of sound that hide a host of intriguing details. The song appropriately returns to its 8-bit roots to wrap up on a “game over” vamp.

Juxtaposing such diverse sounds is a fundamental part of the band’s experimental approach. Each track offers a different facet, but a uniform portrait begins to emerge, casting the band as a hopeful, inquisitive collective. While electronic music can seem cold or stiff, The Octopus Project overcomes that with their exuberant attitude. This shines through brightest on “Mmkit”, my favorite earworm on Fever Forms. It kicks off with glitchy static and a techno beat which should foreshadow a club-friendly dance track. It’s a promising intro, but it delivers a surprising three minute gem. The mechanical percussion is quickly buried under a spacy, indie rock mix and chiming guitar line. Then the bass takes over, sounding like New Order on a mix of mood stabilizers and crack. Beeps and whistles, frenetic drum rolls, and crystalline tones fill out context for the relentless, snaking bass line. The manic ride finally subsides into a simple beat, speedily growing sparser until it gives way to the bouncy electro-pop of the next track, “The Man with the Golden Hand”.

Perhap” offers a similar bait and switch. Dreamy electronica loops lazily with trembling synth accents, creating an island of calm. But a short, punchy drum solo shatters the relaxing reverie and sets a simple swaggering rhythm. Throbbing tremolo and thick reverb link back to the drowsy beginning, but the heavy drumbeat precludes drifting away. Echoed guitar arpeggios set up the next step where the song moves into a lush exotica groove, anchored by a singing, soprano keyboard line that seems ready to cover the “Theme from Star Trek”. The whole package has timeless feel because the retro style is moderated by a modern percussion mix.

Musical surprises like these can be gimmicky, but The Octopus Project brings a brash confidence that could excuse a multitude of musical sins. Even as they flit from updated synthpop (“Whitby”) to Devo-esque new wave (“The Mythical E.L.C.”), it’s easy to hang with the changes, trying to anticipate what comes next. The only pigeonhole for this genre-hopping project is to file it under “art school” music. Indeed, the album’s promotion and packaging all point in this direction, from the stereoscopic album trailer and custom View-Master slides to translucent gold vinyl and “psychotraumatic” CD art. All of this may seem too precious, but it’s worth letting the music speak for itself, even if it sings in a multitude of tongues.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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