[1 February 2005]
I hope—I think—we’ve finally made it past the era of electronica-as-genre. During the ‘90s, how many dissimilar artists were corralled under this ridiculous blanket label in the name of the Next Big Trend? At the end of the last decade, you couldn’t throw a sample or synth line into a song without being accused of jumping on the electronica bandwagon. Even supposedly do-no-wrong artists like Radiohead and U2 were lambasted by fans for hinging entire records on electronic experimentation. Perhaps this is why, despite all the brouhaha surrounding the “movement”, many mainstream practitioners of electronic music were unimaginative and derivative of the “genre” forerunners.
But yes, thankfully the eggshell tip-toeing that hindered the potential of our technology seems to have waned. A song can finally be judged by the complete picture on the puzzle rather than by the shape of one of its pieces. From an instrumentation point of view, the jump from Kylie Minogue to The Postal Service really isn’t that huge, but we’re not going to see them on tour together (except in my dreams).
And as genre lines blur, bend, and break in the digital age, artists are no longer afraid to push the boundaries of what we’ve heard before. This of course doesn’t make my job any easier. How does one categorize The Octopus Project, for instance? One Ten Hundred Thousand Million, the second release from this Austin instrumental trio (with the help of an assortment of guest musician friends), is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink concoction of various acoustic instruments, keyboards, digital effects, and samples. At its most effective, the production is so seamless that it’s almost difficult to discern the live instrumentation from the loops. Is The Octopus Project a symbiosis of man and machine, or does it exist in some fluid limbo in between?
The record alternates between high energy drum-n-bass grooves and slower cuts of subdued moodiness. Throughout, however, there is a sense of urgent unease. Every beat is purposeful, tight, and determined. When listening, I can’t help feeling that there is some task that I have yet to accomplish, and that time is running out for me. I think this is due in large part to drummer Toto Miranda, who rips out dance beats so quickly that you can see why most DJs stick to sampling. The irony is that with a DJ, you get the impression of the calm and collected Wizard of Oz, pulling the strings behind the scenes—always in complete control. The image of a live drummer, however, is one of exhausting work and flailing arms. Even though the drummer technically has more control over tempo than a DJ, it’s he who resembles the slave to rhythm.
This is most evident than on boisterous opener “Exit Counselor”, where Miranda lays down a furious beat, booming and fuzzy, while an amalgam of staccato jangles, echoes, phase-effect keyboards, and guitar noise breakdowns create a thick landscape of sound. This and other upbeat tracks, such as “Music is Happiness” and “Tuxedo Hat”, are the quickest to please.
The real heart and soul of this record, however, exists in the quieter moments, when the noise and effects are pushed to the background, allowing a simple hook or bass line to establish an atmosphere. “Adjustor” is the standout track here. It doesn’t seem possible that the to-and-fro simplicity of its primary hook could be so engaging, but it is. “All of the Champs That Ever Lived” moves with more urgency but still manages to keep up the eerie quietude over Miranda’s lightning chops. “Bruise” is one of the more minimalist pieces here, beginning with an ambient keyboard and slowly building with a gorgeous melody. “Malaria Codes”, which could be confused for a Groove Armada track if the sound wasn’t so organic, is propelled from good to great by the jazzy horn accompaniment that enters halfway through.
If there were a real negative to this record, it would be that the music cannot exist at any time or place. Don’t throw it on for the first time unless you plan on giving it your full attention. The music is almost dependent on the listener’s concentration, and I won’t lie—at times, this can be a struggle. The clicks, blips, beeps and noise occasionally come too far forward, resulting in an aural overload that can subvert your interest if you’re not careful. Fight through it, though, and you will be rewarded. A good imagination helps. Because there are no lyrics, you are free to invent your own visual representation of what this music is trying to say. For me, it tells me to keep driving faster. And that’s indicative of good rock and roll.