Thursday, December 3, 2009

#29. Polvo - In Prism (Merge, 2009)

I'll just get this part out of the way first: there is no way that a band should sound this good after a 12 year hiatus. I know that this decade that sort of thinking has been proven wrong on multiple occasions, but it still feels odd to think that after such a long break and after the least impressive album of their career Polvo were able to regroup and put out something as great as In Prism. Hell, if not for the drastically punchier production you could probably be led to believe that this was made right after Exploded Drawing instead of Shapes, kind of continuing the matured songwriting of the former and refining the ideas into much more expansive compositions. That's probably why it works so well, not just the expansive compositions - most of the songs break the 5-minute barrier with a couple crossing past 8 minutes - but the fact that it feels like a follow up to Exploded Drawing rather than the continuation of the mediocre Shapes. It's basically Polvo coming back to their roots in a way, letting the reunited guitar trio of Ash Bowie, Dave Brylawski and Steve Popson get their interplay going again while shuttling through eastern modalities and oddly queasy/pleasant riffs like it's 1996 all over again. In other words: it's right up my alley.

There's one key difference to the sound of In Prism though: it's hard to describe it without using the word mellow. Polvo's peak albums may have taken a few breathers, but on the whole they were frenetic, tense and noisy. While a few tracks here hearken back to that sort of sound - notably "Beggar's Bowl" and "The Peddlar" - there's a definite tendency in this reunited Polvo to slow thing down and get downright pretty instead. Looking specifically at the two longest tracks, both have moments of classic Polvo eastern-tinged guitar twiddles and the like, but both "Lucia" and especially closer "A Link in the Chain" are more concerned with drawing out the most beautifully mellow passages of their 8+ minute spans as opposed to flitting between more 'classic' Polvo riffage. And wouldn't you know, those are the two best tracks the album has to offer for that very reason. The band puts as much craft into those mellow passages as they did into the likes of "Stinger (Five Wigs)" way back when, making them interesting enough to draw you in as opposed to making you wonder when they're gonna move on to the next section. "A Link in the Chain" is particularly good in this regard, giving the dynamic trio of Popson, Brylawski and Bowie a great groove to work over for the final half of the song while adding in all manner of distinctly non-Polvo elements (church bells!) to the proceedings to make for a suitably epic denouement for the album.

Of course of you came looking for more of the usual stuff, the interplay between Brylawski and Bowie, the eastern modalities, the queasy dissonance that's quite pleasant in a way, you won't be too disappointed either. While I'd say that the best stuff happens when they sound the least like their past selves it's hard to not get a bit excited at the miniature leads peppered throughout "Beggar's Bowl" and "Right the Relation" or the trilling verse riff from "The Peddlar" as examples of how little has changed since the band's early days. The longer excursions into this throwback style may not pack the same level of intricacy as the mellow numbers, but between the 6-minute "Right the Relation" and the almost 7-minute "Dream Residue/Work" - which come to think of it is the best fusion of the two sides you could ask for - there's enough evidence that the band can still knock out that sort of thing without any trouble at all. It's also in these moments that new drummer Brian Quast makes his presence felt, as his more aggressive style seems to be the driving force behind "Relation" and gives the verses of "Beggar's Bowl" a great deal of propulsion. The fact that in the calmer moments you can barely tell that this isn't the same lineup that made Exploded Drawing goees toshow how well integrated Quast has become with the other three, but when he breaks out a bit it results in the most kinetic stuff the band's done since Today's Active Lifestyles.

I think that might be why In Prism fares so well for me even among the sloughs of other great reunion albums that the decade offered; it's not so much a victory lap as it is the sort of evolution you might have expected Polvo to undergo at some point. The signifiers towards their older material are still out in force, but at the same time there's a sense of forward motion to the band's sound, integrating a newfound mellowness into their previous fury without it sounding like a departure so much as a logical continuation. The 12-year break wasn't really necessary, but the results were (ah fuck it, I get one cliche here) worth the wait. (Fuck I shouldn't have done that...)

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