In the world of popular music, there may be no harder tightrope to walk than the one between experimentalism and mass appeal. The two so rarely work together that when they do—for example, when Radiohead’s Kid A went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts—even the artists seem shocked. Likewise, Austin electro-band Octopus Project has spent the past decade working its way toward mainstream acceptance. Bit by bit, the Texas foursome has made the odd sound normal by spiking their experimental tendencies with satisfying melodies and rock ’n’ roll abandon.
The band’s love of electro-intellectualizing and showmanship has come together in Hexadecagon, a multimedia performance that features live music and synchronized video projections. The band plays in the center surrounded by lights, speakers and screens. Above, kaleidoscopic video loops by Wiley Wiggins (whom you may remember as the early-adolescent everyman from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused) are projected on the ceiling. The project’s name, taken from the geometrical term for a 16-sided object, references the eight-channel sound and eight-channel video system built for the occasion. “A sixteen-sided audiovisual panorama!” the group’s website declares.
Despite the project’s novelty, the songs of Hexadecagon are classic Octopus Project, with insistent, unchanging drum loops, ambient synthesizers, optimistic glockenspiel melodies and the band’s trademark theremin, an instrument that gives songs the feel of a 1950s alien-invasion movie. What is new are repetitive piano arpeggios that form the foundations of the songs. Clearly the band had been listening to a lot of Steve Reich, the avant-garde composer whose experiments in rhythmic phasing helped usher in the minimalist era of classical music. Hexadecagon sounds like minimalism simplified, stripped of its theorizing and given a rock treatment—an emotional catharsis driven by explosive crescendos.
It’s a formula that allows the band to sneak in more conceptual elements without alienating the audience. For the avant-garde composer, a dispassionate crowd isn’t cause for alarm, but a badge of honor. In the world of indie rock—when you’re on stage with a guitar in your hand and 200 jaded 20-somethings waiting to be impressed—you’d better connect. The Octopus Project is adventurous, but it’s too devoted to the thrill of communal experience to risk being fearlessly experimental.