There’s something both incredibly organic and dramatic about The Octopus Project’s live sets. Watching the Austin foursome power through their energetic electronic sets, which sound something like trip-hop on speed, there’s a pervasive sense of manic chaos that still manages to seem planned at every step of the way. The group’s Saturday night set at Blender Theater wasn’t any different. Band members swerved past each other, passing off instruments or twirling knobs on synths—all of which were connected by sprawling tentacles out of a main hub front and center on the stage (and if that’s not where they get their name from, I’ll eat my hat). I can’t for the life of me listen to one of their studio albums, it just doesn’t translate. Their sprawling soundscapes seem dependent on the interplay between the band’s members during solitary moments which create an aura or an essence that can’t be tied down or bottled up—something that makes the experience of seeing them live that much more memorable and beautiful.
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They soldiered through sound problems. They played to a half-full house of tired CMJers at a venue off the festival’s beaten path. But Yo Majesty! still gave about 150 people a performance that will undoubtedly close out the CMJ Music Marathon with a lasting memory. It may not have been as uninhibited (their performances often end in topless bedlam) as fans are accustomed to, but Yo Majesty! still brought their brand of sex-laden hip-hop to the Blender Theater with confidence and gusto. Mugging for a line of cameras at every moment, MCs Shunda K and Jwl B powered through a quick set of caffeinated rap odes to sex, partying, and passion. Constantly arguing with the venue’s sound man, no volume dial could have turned their electro beats up loud enough. “This is a party, our name is up outside the building,” Shunda K barked during the early part of the set. “We’re not here to sing some karaoke, so let’s turn those tracks up.”
In a hip-hop performance, if you can’t work the crowd with your bravado and beats, you’ve got no business being on stage. Luckily for Yo Majesty!, the duo has the requisite braggadocio in spades. If you weren’t into it, they’d find you and get you there. A Yo Majesty! show partially hindered by unmitigable circumstances would still serve as a peak for most bands, and they proved to the crowd why their name and no others were on Blender’s marquee.
I’m having welcome flashbacks to Melt-Banana’s “Cat Brain Land” and Queens Of The Stone Age’s “Six Shooter” here, but I can’t remember the last time I saw music this hectic in the flesh. Astonishingly, beneath all the howling and grunting there seems to be a genuine grasp of form: Push, pull, relax, and repeat. Which is to say—the riffs aren’t always the most pleasant thing to take in, and some of those chords would have probably managed to get guitarist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh excommunicated back in the 1700s, but when the song ends, I feel like they’ve accomplished something, even if I have no clue what just happened.
Minus The Bear owes a reasonable chunk of their genetic code to the most forgettable of ‘90s rock, and they act like they’re acutely aware of it, desperately trying to break away from the legacy of The Nixons and Candlebox with contrived complexity: Unexpected tempo shifts, motivic changes, chopped samples, sequenced keyboards, and a generally sectional approach to what otherwise might be perfectly pleasant riff rock.
Drummer Erin Tate is jaw-droppingly flawless throughout. My analytical lobes always welcome the change of pace whenever he charges to the forefront mid-song to define the groove of whatever disjunct little section is coming up next. But the lobes where I keep the things I love always feel like they’re just being asked to pay attention to a constant stream of new and shiny things that are otherwise devoid of substance. During their performance, you can almost see how these songs were written: Every minute or so, there’s a new “Hey guys check this out” moment.
And sure, some of those nuggets are clever, but I’m not so sure about the lasting replay value of this stuff. Because once I’ve checked them all out, what then?
I had intended to avoid Annuals entirely during what I assumed was bound to be their awkward indie rock adolescence, but whoops, occasionally one of those little brats will turn out to be a precocious wunderkind. Let’s start with Adam Baker: He’s as competent a frontman as I’ve ever seen for his age, especially considering that he’s tethered down by guitars and a keyboard. His delivery is part yelp and part emo-whine, but the most impressive part is that he was able to write pop songs that expertly glue the six-piece ensemble together even when there are four dudes playing drums.