Associating particular sounds and themes with geographical locales is nothing new. Everyone knows what "Southern rock" sounds like, and most metalheads won't hesitate to explain what "NWOBHM" (new wave of British heavy metal) is, while more music-geeky types will know precisely what you mean when you say "California pop" or "New York dance-punk."

Such labels frustrate musicians for a variety of legitimate reasons, but the core of their objections is not just a resentment of being inextricably tied to their residence, but a fear of sounding unoriginal. While plenty of critics will lazily pigeonhole artists according to whatever vague criteria they apply (geographical or otherwise), those who defy such constraints will not be saddled with a two-word tag for long. Truly mold-breaking musicians like Neutral Milk Hotel, Les Savy Fav, and Tom Waits gained much of their rabid following because they so effortlessly repel categorization. With their fiercely original and utterly hypnotic second album, In the City of Sleep (Kemado Records), Brooklyn's the Fever are on the road to entering that highly respectable echelon.

This is not to say that there aren't a handful of helpful signposts along their lost highway, particularly of the cinematic variety. "I'm kind of a Fellini fanatic," admits Geremy Jasper, the man responsible for the album's surrealist artwork, possessed carnival-barker viewpoints, and eerie piano lines (delivered on both toy and traditional models of the instrument). "The structure of 8 1/2 has always fascinated me... the way dream and reality rub up against each other, take right turns and left turns, and still make sense." He also cites a recent rediscovery of David Lynch's Wild at Heart and an ongoing affection for Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky as major inspirational wells.

What Jasper and his band mates J. Ruggiero, Keith Stapleton, and Achilles Tzoulafis draw from those sources is obvious from the second the album's opening track, "Curtains," kicks in. Jasper breaks into a blood-curdling howl that evokes both Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright's soulful foundation, and Nick Cave's dastardly charm, while ghostly pump organ and brassy, brash percussion signal the start of an ambitious record that charts both horrific adult nightmares and children's sugar-plum dreams—and couldn't be more unlike the band's markedly poppier debut album, 2003's Red Bedroom.

"We were frustrated with what we [had been able to produce] on that record," explains Jasper. "We knew we were capable of delivering a lot more, and this time we had the time and resources to make that happen." Drummer Tzoulafis used the extra time to get wildly creative with his percussive contributions; he fashioned his own drums out of random junkyard finds, adding raw and unearthly ingredients that make the band's dizzying mix of organ, xylophone, theremin, marimba, and accordion even more heady. The Fever also had an ideal producer, Steve Revitte, who helped give City's eclectic sprawl a sense of continuity without hindering the band's adventurous exploration. "They say a great producer makes a great atmosphere, and that's just what [Revitte] did. He was patient and open to experimenting. There are different atmospheres, but they're all under the same tent."

That tent could easily house a carnival freak show, a snake-wielding evangelist, or a reverent wake, given the creepy vibe of songs like "Circus Girl," the fire-and-brimstone testimony of "The Secret," or the mournful drone of "Magnus." If the characters and settings that spring forth sound like the conceptions of an altered mind, that's because they are—though not via the expected lysergic avenues. Throughout both preproduction and recording, Jasper was afflicted with an extraordinary strain of insomnia. "I think the sleep deprivation enhanced things a lot," recalls Jasper. "Before we started we knew the destination was going to be different, but this made things [even stranger]. Right before finishing the album cover was the worst. I had only slept about seven hours in seven days—inanimate objects were breathing."

Oddly enough, Jasper views the Fever's forthcoming tour as a chance to relax. "I was kind of living like a sleepless monk while we were making the record. Tour is a chance to sleep." recommended