The Octopus Project have been putting out synth-rock that’s weird, fun, catchy, and experimental in equal measure for over a decade now. Their fifth album (or sixth, if you count their full-length collaboration with Black Moth Super Rainbow) Fever Forms is more of the same. But when “experimental” is one of your buzzwords, “more of the same” can encompass an awful lot. In this case, the album goes heavy on the rock with just the right amount of spacey tracks to give the record some sonic variety.
Opener “The Falls” builds from a simple, thumping bass and drum rhythm, then piles on three separate but interlocking guitar lines before topping it off with a blooping synth and catchy vocal “Ah"s. Then it obliterates most of those lines in a furious burst of hard-rock noise before the original guitar and synth lines re-emerge. Second track “Pyramid Kosmos” begins as a synth and drum duet, as a handful of synth lines are buttressed by impressive but interspersed drum fills. This intro lasts about 45 seconds before a steady beat finally comes in, locking down the track as the synths swirl around. Occasionally The Octopus Project lands on a melody here and there, but “Pyramid Kosmos” is more of a sonic exploration, constantly adding new layers of synth or bringing distortion into the guitar sound. The song builds steadily for four minutes before hitting a breaking point, and from there the synths dissolve into noise for an additional 70 seconds. These two songs each explore what’s essentially instrumental rock, but do it from completely different perspectives.
It’s a heady way to start the album, so it’s not surprising that the mid-tempo, poppy “Whitby” comes next. Yvonne Lambert sings actual lyrics here, but her vocals are intentionally obscured just a bit under the layers of synths, so what the listener hears is mostly just the melody. It’s telling that the most memorable part of the song is the weird synth-vocal feature that serves as the song’s solo/bridge. This leads into the album’s most traditional rock track, “Death Graduates.” A driving beat kicks into a simple guitar/bass riff, which is then echoed in the vocals. With everybody in the band (except for the drums) playing and singing in unison, “Death Graduates” is set to quickly become boring. But then the song drifts from major key into minor, and it’s a bracing change. Shortly afterwards, the song hits a big, slow chorus that also starts major and shifts to minor. It’s a unique way to alter what is fundamentally a simple song, and at just over three minutes, the track doesn’t wear out its welcome.
The middle of Fever Forms isn’t quite as interesting as the beginning. Tracks like “The Mythical E.L.C.”, “MMkit”, and “The Man With the Golden Hand” all have their interesting bits (cool synth brass, a killer bass line, and catchy vocals, respectively), but they don’t play with form or have particularly fascinating sonic ideas. The theremin-dominated “Perhap” is essentially The Octopus Project’s take on a slow ballad, and its warm melody and relaxed tempo serve make it an excellent change of pace song.
The band follows “Perhap” with probably the album’s weirdest track, “Choi Sighs”. It’s all chip-tune style blips and vocodered spoken words over a bed of bass drum hits and handclaps. But there’s a scattered melody to the blips that keeps the song listenable. Fever Forms’ penultimate track “Deep Spice” is driven by a drum loop in an odd time signature that keeps the song constantly off balance. But somehow the song manages to graft not just a catchy melody, but a pair of counter-melodies on top of the loop before finally letting the beat go straight-ahead in the final minute.
“Sharpteeth” closes the album out on a straightforward synth-rock vibe, and it feels like a palate cleanser after all the weirdness in the record’s final third. It’s probably the album’s catchiest song, with sing along vocals and a hooky beat. Yet The Octopus Project isn’t quite satisfied with that, so the vocals give way to theremin before the halfway point of the song. This doesn’t diminish the track’s catchiness, though, and the fact that the song ends with a single synth fading out seems pretty appropriate.
The Octopus Project seem dedicated to staying catchy and strange in equal measure, and Fever Forms actively shows off both of those qualities. It’s the kind of thing that will probably always limit their audience; well, that and the fact that they’re largely an instrumental group. But it’s also the kind of attitude that can develop a faithful cult fandom that keep a band going for decades. It probably helps that they’re based in Austin, where their weirdness can be appreciated on a regular basis.