You kind of have to figure that any instrumental pop band comes into things at a bit of a disadvantage. A human voice and some actual words—catchy or meaningful or insipid as they maybe be—are, you have admit, the accepted industry standard. It’s not that you can’t make great vocal-less pop music (Lord knows there’s a long list of exceptional bands who have), but it certainly must pose a challenge. Making a great record is hard enough without depriving yourself of any chance to put together a catchy chorus or a clever turn of phrase. I mean, those are a large part of what makes pop music so popular in the first place, aren’t they? And a large part of why classical music and instrumental jazz have a harder time finding an audience.
I also suspect that, try as we might to seem more sophisticated and refined than your average music listener, we indie types are really no exception to the rule. Oh sure, we’ve got a healthy respect for a few instrumental electronic acts, and some of us may even love some of them, but we’re also the same group of people who have been known to spend hours analyzing the lyrics of a particularly literary Destroyer song, or getting all teary-eyed over a couple of lines off the latest Iron & Wine record. Plus, let’s face it, we’re children of the Internet age. We’re easily distracted. All those catchy words and hidden meanings help keep us focused. And by contrast, instrumental music so often feels just plain boring.
So in light of all this, you’ve got to give a band like the Octopus Project a lot of credit before you’ve ever even heard a note, just for trying to sell lyric-less music to an MTV-raised, ADHD-infected, Architecture in Helsinki-loving generation of indie popsters. And once you’ve tucked Hello, Avalanche (their fourth full-length) into a cozy corner of your iPod and actually listened to it, you’re bound to give them even more. For an instrumental record, Hello, Avalanche keeps things impressively interesting the whole way through.
A lot of that has to do with borrowing heavily from the usual ADHD-indie-pop handbook. To keep things fresh, the Austin, Texas, trio uses a lot of the same tricks we’ve heard from a slew of indie bands over the few years: they use a long list of instruments (guitars, synths, horns, strings, glockenspiels, theremins, miscellanous electronic squiggles and Nintendo bleeps), they cycle through things quickly, they keep the songs short (only one tops the four minute mark), and they never let a piece drag on too long before launching into something new. Sure, it means that there are a few times on the album when you’re left feeling like you’re just listening to a Go! Team or Architecture in Helsinki song where the vocals just never kick in, but most of the time you’re too busy enjoying the transitions to care
Still, I have to admit that when the band finally does break down and start singing along in chorus during the last track, “Queen”, it’s my favourite part of the entire album. No matter how good the rest of the record might be, those last couple of minutes feel like a breath of fresh air. And as someone who does like a few lyrics and a human voice in their pop music now and again, I can’t help but wonder if Hello, Avalanche might have been even better had they broken down right at the beginning and sung along the whole way through.
But then again, who cares? The Octopus Project have made an excellent record, and you’ll love it plenty for just what it is.
// Notes from the Road
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