Over the past several years, The Octopodes out of Johns Hopkins University have enjoyed a rise to national prominence. They went from being one of the top groups at their home school to ICCA South semifinal mainstays, regularly knocking on the door of ICCA Finals. Moreover, the group boasts an impressive resume of studio albums that had most recently included Blackout and Code Blue. But in their newest album, The Kraken, The Octopodes go where so few scholastic groups have ventured before—all the way to an all-original album. The album features production work by Dave Longo and Angela Ugolini from The Vocal Company, mastering by Dave Sperandio of Vocal Mastering, and additional tracking editing work by Octopodes alum Peter Yang.
One of the coolest aspects of The Kraken is just how evident it is that the songs were not only all written and arranged by group members, but also how many different group members contributed to the creative process. The resulting album is anything but one-note, ranging from party tracks to ballads to anthems to foot-loose and fancy-free melodies.
The Kraken opens with “Kill the Lights,” the group’s definitive contribution to the aforementioned party track category. I love the choice to open the album with a song that was not only upbeat and heavy on attitude but that also featured the group’s most electronic sounds, including strategic smatterings of production effects. A really ominous bass hum provides a cool undercurrent through a lot of this track and I love the choice to feature rotating soloists, in essence giving most (if not all) of the group members the opportunity to introduce themselves to listeners.
The album takes a turn with “Cosmic Rhythm,” which opens with an old-time crackly sound before the sound crystallizes thirty seconds in to spotlight stellar solo work from Lucy Coyle. This track includes particularly nice harmonies, and allowed those harmonies to break out into choral explosions at key moments.
Some of The Octopodes’ finest work comes when their songs are emotionally driven. My favorite track of the album is “Wonderful,” a happy go lucky song for which Katrina Estep severd as both songwriter and soloist that seemed to quite authentically capture the feeling of new, young love—innocent, simple, and delightfully unselfconscious. The percussion on this track offers a hidden gem of a performance, too. The track is all the more impactful for the choice of songs that surround it—the cold disillusionment of “So Naïve,” and the soft sorrow of “I Won’t Wait,” which is driven by a pretty great bass groove.
The late stages of The Kraken pull together three songs that I feel best represent and translate the experience of hearing this group live into the recorded format. Each time I’ve heard the ‘Podes over the last four years, I’ve been struck by their dramatic flair—a unique and utterly authentic capacity to build songs to a climax and let their star vocalists rip into the climax of songs. In different ways, the ‘Podes manifest this effect on “Sandman,” “Untouchable,” and “Speak.” “Sandman” achieves its truest climax on a delightfully surprising female rap interlude at the two-minute mark; “Untouchable” starts small and contained before exploding into sound; “Speak” is downright anthemic from its soulful soloist, to the stripped down arrangement, to the clap-along breakdown.
This album has a few questionable spots such as the largely cliché lyrics of “Take One Step” and the choice to overcomplicate what probably would have been better left a simpler, more sincere hidden track in “My Heart Belongs With You.” Just the same, when you look at the overall accomplishment of The Kraken as a diverse, dramatic, and musically sound album it’s remarkable to think that it’s the work of a collegiate group and that members of that group wrote all of the songs themselves. The Kraken lives up to the hype and I'm pleased to report it's one of the most impressive collegiate albums I’ve reviewed this year.