Music

The Octopus Project: Fever Forms

Instrumental rock! Synths! Guitars! Catchy vocal hooks! Bizarre sonic landscapes! The Octopus Project somehow manages to blend this into one coherent package.


The Octopus Project

Fever Forms

Label: Peek-A-Boo
US Release Date: 2013-07-09
UK Release Date: 2013-07-08
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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.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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