The Octopus Project – 03.24.06

Beat Kitchen – Chicago

I walked into the tiny performance room of The Beat Kitchen during the first opener’s set. It was a quarter-filled with half-interested people and on the stage was the logical equivalent of electro-rockers Ratatat reinvented as a jam band. A scraggly looking guy, whom I would picture selling something handmade at a Phish show, was yelling into the mic, backed by a mixture of what could be called electro-blues. The music was a bit confounding, a loosely held together jumble of punk, blues, effect-heavy pop and programmed beats, something I thought would naturally combust if combined. Seeing that it didn’t, the fact that Modest Mouse is on a major label only made more sense. It was loud enough that I could only glance over to my buddy Dan to quizzically raise my eyebrows and shrug my shoulders. Thankfully, the set ended soon after our arrival.

The room filled more as Volcano! set up their equipment. I’d been curious to see their live show since I learned about the band through the Empty Bottle’s music player that streams upcoming bands. Last year, they released their full-length Beautiful Seizure, which, as the set began, I realized was a wholly appropriate title.

With a screech of noise, they started their set. The three guys lurched out a confounding cloud of crashing drums accented with laptop and guitar chaos. As usual, I was happy to hear a band play with fitful cathartic noise for a set opener. The noise evolved into a song, marked with lead singer Aaron With pained falsetto croon that evoked Thom Yorke as much as it did Conor Oberst. As the song moved on, I had no idea if it actually sandwiched into anything palatable. It had weird accentuating touches, like wacky time signatures and moments where simply a bike bell was rung. At what seemed a mid-song break, but actually the end, the audience was mostly still, a few pairs of hands tentatively clapping. With that moment, I realized that it did work; the band was intentionally baiting and switching, shifting between accessible moments and atonal noise. A ballsy but interesting way to start a set, especially if you’re opening for the Octopus Project, who specialize in candy-coated electro-art-rock.

As I heard more and more, I could see that Volcano! took an avant-kitchen sink approach to songwriting. I couldn’t see what wasn’t included: it was a bizarre Katamari of noise, with bits of post-punk and avant-garde, touches of Radiohead, pop, late 70’s punk, and Sun Ra-ish free jazz all trying to coexist in the shell of a single pop song. As a result, the band sometimes felt disjointed, sometimes united. I tried to imagine how the band formed; three random Chicago musicians from separate genres were somehow magically transported to and locked in a practice space till they figured an album out. His guitar style, like the rest of the music is best described as challenging. The percentage of time that the songs do not work are tellingly calculated, reinforced by their apparent comfort with the audience’s confusion.

Toward the end of their set they played a particularly charming song: brooding, hushed and occasionally wriggling free of its restrains to stutter notes like a machine gun trying to fill a room. Aaron With’s quivering voice built to a towering, non-electronic Idiotheque-styled breakdown of screaming and drums. And how do you finish a set like that? By playing an Otis Redding cover. Confusing as the whole affair was, the typically Chicago audience tolerated it and I found myself a new local band to follow. One of those things that I love about Chicago is the number of bands who are willing to just shove their heads in the clouds and do what they feel, regardless of pop convention.

I have a few friends who relocated to Chicago from Austin. When I tried to entice one of
them to come along to see the Octopus Project, he cranked that they were too cutesy, relying on artsy theatrics and a transparently thin frontwoman. As the band set up, I started to see the root of his complaints. The band draped the amps with Christmas lights and cloth covers that made them look like glowing pointy-eared ghosts, tied white balloons on strings to their equipment and themselves, and the males of the band wore matching outfits of white button-down shirts with pencil-thin black ties. Just looking at the tiny stage packed with balloons and other artsy accessories, I could feel how this could become cloying.

The rubbery opening synth line to “Exit Council” burst through the speakers and someone threw a mass of white balloons out over the audience. The song, which is the lead track off of 2004’s One Ten Hundred Thousand Million is a good example of The Octopus Project’s approach to songwriting: a mixture of electronic elements like chiptune keyboard lines and some synthesized rhythm mashed up with punkish guitar riffs and bombastic live drumming. It’s akin to the sugar high you’d get blowing a Saturday morning on Frosted Flakes and NES. It’s also just a short enough track that it grabs your attention, slaps you around a bit, and then disappears. “It was cute,” I grumbled, now having the added joy of white balloons repeatedly hitting me in the head. (Though I found a remedy in popping them with my pen in-between scribbling notes.)

One nice thing is their persistence of utilizing Toto Miranda’s live drumming; he plays his fucking heart out. Ultimately, it’s all good fun, bristling with energy that transfers easily out to the audience (as cute as the plush toys that they sell next to their records at the merch table) bright jangly guitars sit next to big beat loops. It’s all a kind of major chord madness. A few songs in, they slowed things down with one of their post-Tortoise numbers, laden with Encino Morricone twanging guitar facing off with Yvonne Lambert playing the lead on the Theremin. Though it feels like the Theremin has been resurrected again as a cheeky gimmick, she has far more talent at playing it than most I’ve seen.

The slower numbers on One Ten Hundred Thousand Million are the less interesting of the bunch, pleasant but even less appropriate live. They moved into “Music is Happiness,” which shows off Octopus Project’s anthemic side, a persistent stomping beat coupling with a ripping punkish guitar line. There’s a great control of the energy; toward the end, the song slows down, letting the mood build before it shoots back up to an inevitable apex. The songs always end right when they should, just before they get too saccrine.

The highlight of the evening came with “Tuxedo Hat”, a videogame tune all grown up as a mass of rubbery bass mixes with a memorable lead guitar line. The drummer did double duty on this track, triggering samples along with intensely playing. The crowd danced quite a bit for a group of Chicagoians, who, in my experience, are a breed of people who prefer to stare while swaying minimally.

The way that the Octopus Project combine the sugary exuberance of the Exploding Plastix’s ectronic-laden pop and the lysergic whimsy of the Flaming Lips can be a bit much, but they back it up with a strong live presence. With their upcoming gig at Coachella (surprisingly they won it when unbeknownst to them, a fan entered them in a MySpace contest) the exposure of the band will more than likely grow exponentially.

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