Of Montreal was founded in 1996 in Athens, Georgia, and became one of the psychedelic pop outfits that made up the mysterious and loosely-knit Elephant 6 scene, along with Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, and others. For a time, circa the turn of the century, E6 was the most exciting thing to emerge from the 706 since the heyday of R.E.M. and Pylon. It spilled over into the mainstream, produced a few albums that became part of the perennial music-nerd canon, and remains influential on subsequent generations of psychedelic revivalists, most notably Tame Impala.
Recently, a wave of Elephant 6 nostalgia has produced an acclaimed book (Adam Clair’s “Endless, Endless: A Lo-Fi History of the Elephant 6 Mystery”) and a forthcoming documentary flick. It would be easy enough for of Montreal to cash in on that mystique. However, much to their credit, dwelling in the past is the last thing of Montreal has ever wanted to do.
Over a dozen musicians, including Athens luminaries such as Julian Koster and Heather McIntosh, have passed through the band’s ranks over the years, but it’s consistently revolved around the artistry of frontman Kevin Barnes. From its busker-flavored debut, the band played Beatles-y psych-pop for a while before radically changing its sound on the 2005 album “The Sunlandic Twins,” which jettisoned the standard E6 aesthetic for a jittery and infectious blend of electronic dance-funk inspired less by Sir Paul than by Prince.
From there, the band added increasingly complex layers of experimental bricolage, leading up to its latest, “Freewave Lucifer f<ck f^ck f>ck,” which, 26 years in, is as challenging and idiosyncratic as anything the band has made yet.
Through its nonstop evolution, the unifying factor has been Barnes’s “freewave” philosophy, which encompasses the sort of libertine creative self-indulgence one would expect from an artist who offhandedly namechecks the renegade philosopher Georges Bataille, but gains strength and structure from a painter’s sweeping big-picture aesthetic vision and an animator’s eye for comical details. While much about of Montreal is strange, self-indulgent, and ridiculous, its ever-shifting sense of artistry and the deliberation behind its every skittering sonic appropriation elevates it far above the silliness of much psychedelia to the heights of true musical innovation.
“Freewave Lucifer f<ck f^ck f>ck” is such an odd record that it’s hard to imagine what it might sound like live, but there’s no doubt that Barnes and company will pull off something interesting. From the early days of E6, in which the shows were big, raucous parties, through its brush with mainstream success on the back of an Outback Steakhouse commercial, seeing of Montreal play live has always been essential to understanding its cult appeal.
Kevin Barnes may never eclipse the legend of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, whose legend benefited from the fact that he made himself scarce after his classic 1998 LP “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” got a whole lot more attention than he’d anticipated. But in the ranks of musicians who continuously challenge their fans and themselves over a span of decades with increasingly complex and rewarding work, he stands pretty much alone.
Of Montreal plays 9:30 Club on Thursday, October 6. Purchase tickets here.