The Raleigh band Octopus Jones hasn't broken up, exactly, but they're ready to be mourned. Their Phantasmagoria is one of the year's best local records, its colorful art-rock sprawl spawned by two distinct songwriters fighting to fill the same space. But Tyler Morris, the guitarist who joined Octopus Jones shortly before they left South Carolina for Raleigh, quit the band this summer in a messy split accompanied by social-media jabs. His absence leaves Octopus Jones without one of its primary songwriters and the dissonant tension he provided.
Phantasmagoria bests Octopus Jones' 2011 debut, Treat Yourself, by balancing stylistic poles. Guitarist and keyboardist Danny Martin contributed songs befitting the ridiculous, fur-collared coat he dons for every performance; like Bowie at the height of his glam-rock powers, he lent a menacing edge to seductive grooves and wacky wordplay. The group's aggressor, Martin foregrounds his fun-first agenda. Morris was Martin's hypnotic foil. His vocal melodies drifted and swayed, keying on the whispery quality of his high register. His songs moved with traditional pop-rock strut, forcing a square peg into otherwise voluptuous grooves.
For a time, as evidenced by Phantasmagoria, Morris and the rest of Octopus Jones had perfect chemistry for bending their styles into strange, complementary shapes. On the arresting slow-burner "World of Steers," for instance, tense keyboards and overdriven guitars goad his monotone into an unlikely rage. Morris' "SADATA" remains a slinky brainteaser, with simple vocals refracted through effects and bolstered by harmonies that arrive at odd angles. The guitars and bass creep and distort, building to an eruption of fuzz that's cozy and claustrophobic, like a coffin's silk interior.
Martin's subsequent "Tarantino," meanwhile, is the catchiest song Octopus Jones has ever made. His weird warble ricochets off relentless rhythms and sharp guitars, suggesting a more depraved take on The B-52s. After the puzzling weirdness of Morris' contribution, "Tarantino" lands as a fun and frivolous response, its subversive qualities taking subtle hold.
Morris and Martin's give-and-take allowed Octopus Jones to have it both ways, to exist as both a dark and confounding psych outfit and a party-starting rock band. Too bad those days are gone so soon after the arrival of this remarkable record.
This article appeared in print with the headline "On hardcore pranksters, hip-hop revivals and more."