Guitar-stranglers Polvo dissipated with little fanfare, except to the consternation of their college rock cult following, after the tour for their previous album, Shapes, which came out on Touch and Go in 1997. After the eclectic sprawl of 1996’s double album Exploded Drawing, Shapes was a mirage of an album that sounded austere and severe, more deeply embracing some of the Eastern-isms that had always colored their work, and flirting with more classic rock jamming than anyone could have expected. Though Shapes was another great Polvo album, you could hear the band becoming less interested in being Polvo and more interested in following their own respective muses. From the sounds of their first album in 12 years, In Prism, these guys are very interested in being Polvo again.
All of the hallmarks of Polvo’s past are back: alternative tunings, snake-charming string bending, anchoring chiming chords in tremelo, odd time changes, aggressive guitar interplay, playfully brooding lyrics, some snaky bass lines, and a general sense of sensory intensity. What’s different is that the band is executing it’s songs with a precision and muscularity that is outright gripping. You would be hard-pressed to find a couple more solidly-built, locked-in rock songs this year than “Beggar’s Bowl” and “Right the Relation,” both loud and bombastic with punishing repetition; spinning off into asides and back at the whim of the band. The production has clarity beyond anything the band has approached in the past, yet still sets itself apart from the pack with the strange tunings, nimble guitar figures, screeching and vibrating textures, and that special interlocking and majestic melodic sensibility that Polvo has always excelled at.
Also notable here are the song lengths and the deployment of repetition. A typical Polvo song from the past jumped around quite a bit, never staying in one place too long. While there are still many different parts, they take their time reaching their destinations this time around, repeating parts a lot longer and drawing out the song lengths past the five minute mark. Singer/guitarist Dave Brylawski’s participation in Eastern-indie fusion band Idyll Swords is evident here, as the songs he sings unwind slowly, finding hypnotic little grooves and sticking with them before ending in guitar duels, like the call-and-response shakedown that finishes up “Dream Residue/Work”. Thought they’ve been dogged by fairly lazy Sonic Youth comparisons their whole career, there is an undeniable connection between In Prism’s guitar work and the Sonic’s more recent dark jammy material like “Pink Steam”. The dreamy finale “A Link in the Chain” is the loosest and most over-the-top sounding moment here, as the calm first half of the song slowly gives way to a coda that goes balls out with church bells, severely phased guitars, and a slow simmering low end drone brought to the boiling point. After a slight return to the verse, another blanket of dentist’s drill guitar squall accompanies dual guitar soloing as the song plays out. The listener is left with the feeling that this could go on forever, and is left wanting more.
Lyrically, Ash Bowie (the other principal songwriter) and Brylawski haven’t changed a whole lot since they were young. Filled with first-person impressions of perception, orientations, situations, scenes, and action, you won’t find the typical indie-whining or interpersonal drama here, just cool sounding couplets like “It’s quiet on the ward, the surgeon’s bored/Yeah, the body leaves the spirit behind for dissection!” If there’s a weak point in these recordings, it’s that the vocals are too often mixed too low to be comprehensible. Brylawski’s sweet surfer boy voice and Bowie’s sassier sing-song go great with the music, and it would be fun as a listener to be able to make out all the words so you could sing along.
A lot of people are saying this is Polvo’s best work. While it is definitely Polvo running on all cyclinders, it doesn’t reach the kaleidoscopic, dizzying heights of earlier material like Celebrate the New Dark Age or Today’s Active Lifestyles. But this sort of comparison misses the point. This is a different kind of Polvo album. While consolidating the strengths of their past, In Prism is a precise and power-packed version of the band, more focused on the sound of four musicians with great chemistry playing together in a room than on the idiosyncratic soundworlds of different songs. Polvo have returned stronger and more single-minded. Regardless of whether you were around the first time, you should get in on this right now.