Upon listening to the half-intriguing, half-disturbing electronic sounds of Octant, I had one thought: “Well, at least they didn’t use a drum machine.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Imagine my surprise in finding that Octant is a drum machine, but not the boring type of nondescript box costing thousands of dollars and delivering nothing more than a thoughtless antiseptic beat. Octant is kinetic art-a robot of sorts delivering movement color and sound. A series of computer controlled levers and switches concocted from long lost basement materials play brightly colored drums to create a real sound with a mechanical whirr. This could be the future of electronic music.
Creator Matthew Steinke (who may or may not have suffered through grade school with that name) built Octant from pieces found in pawn shops, laboratories and attics giving his creation a thrift shop feel that might be a little more suited to a modern art gallery. In fact, galleries are part of Octant’s regular touring repetoire. Accompanying the Octant machine are the voice and keyboard stylings of Steinke and his partner Tassany Zimmerman that reflect disinterested go-go band getting into a brawl with Sonic Youth. They match well the artificial intelligence of their Macintosh computer adding a few randomized layers of blips and some nice repetetive Moog sounds hearkening back to The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” among others.
Octant’s 1999 debut, Shock-No-Par expertly explores the duo’s music-meets-machine as the living accompany the automated in on a bouncy little trip into the mind of a mad scientist. It’s a multimedia CD that also contains two video shorts set to some of their more annoying interludes of blips and squeals. If disembodied baby doll heads are your thing, definitely throw the disc into something with a screen. Obviously, Octant’s concerns go beyond music. For mere aesthetic value, the group is original, sapping a little from Sesame Street or Astromen, but their music is suprisingly infectious, if not just a little danceable.
Ideally Steinke plans to create a show that runs itself. His romp into robotic music puts an ironic twist on the digital era. I am grateful that someone as disgusted with drum machines as I has opted to create a new option. But, while I applaud the effort, I need to see more before I throw my weight fully behind Shock-No-Par. Incidentally, an octant is a navigation device used by sailors. I believe it is similar to a sextant. Whether Steinke has something for sailors or not has yet to be seen.