Release Date: Oct 1, 2013
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Experimental Rock, Math Rock
When bands break up or embark on extended hiatuses, the cumulative effect of all those years away is automatically assumed to be degenerative. Conventional wisdom suggests that the passage of time—and the day jobs, marriages, and diaper changes that often go with it—will inevitably erode the youthful abandon and creative frisson that fuels inspiration, not to mention the aging musician’s physical ability to retain their chops. But since reforming five years ago after a decade of inaction, Chapel Hill indie-rock linchpins Polvo have been getting down to the business of blowing such theories out of the water.
Polvo have taken countless zips around the post-rock galaxy. With Siberia, their first effort in four years, they’ve reversed their polarity, finally hardened into simple, elemental rock goodness. No genre prefixes or misleading categories, just laser-etched songcraft and infinitely tight bashing of instruments. As on In Prism, their previous record, every song is an adamantine pop gem, each one bursting with a hushed spit of lyrics and lightning stabs of guitar and synth.
"It's no joke when you're chasing the bus, growing older in a college town" sings Polvo guitarist/vocalist Ash Bowie on "Light, Raking," a moody, melody-bending standout on the math rock institution's sixth full-length, Siberia. This lyric is one of the only clues that could date Polvo's strange, stilted evolution. Siberia follows 2009's In Prism, the album that marked the break of a 12-year absence for the band but sounded more or less in line with the colorful math rock tones of their classic '90s albums.
It opens with a barrage of riffing, and continues, for the most part, that way for the next fifty-odd minutes. That’s how Siberia, the sixth full-length album from veteran Chapel Hill, North Carolina rockers Polvo begins and ends, and marks their second brilliant release since reforming in 2008. If you’ve not had these guys in your life before now, then let me tell you why you should.
In a year of so many turn-back-the-clock ‘90s revivals, you’d be excused if you confused Polvo’s new album Siberia for a straight-up comeback effort, since it’s certainly of a piece with the year’s many returns-to-form you weren’t waiting for because you didn’t imagine them happening. But if you’re keeping score, the Chapel Hill quartet’s reunion actually came in 2008 with a post-hiatus album, In Prism, coming a year later. And anyway, it’s hard to chalk up Siberia as just a pleasant-surprise renaissance, because Polvo’s latest finds the group developing and pushing forward its craft after all these years, 20-plus since they started in 1990—in effect, when Ash Bowie sings about “growing older in a college town” on the album, he could well be describing his band growing older in its college-rock niche.
The return of wonderfully abstruse Nineties guitar-benders Polvo might not be the splashiest indie-rock comeback (that distinction goes to their Chapel Hill, North Carolina, homeys Superchunk). But it's one of the finest. On Siberia (the follow-up to 2009's In Prism, their first LP in 12 years), Ash Bowie almost whispers cracked visions ("The tiny fucking rainbows appear in the mist") on songs that seem to rock out and melt into the mist at the same time.
On their second LP since reuniting in 2008, Polvo's off-kilter fury is reined in by repetitive, long-form pieces that range from cool and mathematical to monotonous. On the heels of the 20th anniversary of Polvo's classic Today's Active Lifestyles, Siberia is odd for its normalcy. Whereas the former possessed a uniquely scrappy attack and dynamic production, the latter feels like a controlled, compressed musical exercise informed by these '90s underground heroes' infatuation with '60s psychedelia.
If the knotty, challenging, instrumentally advanced records by Polvo had appeared in the ‘70s, they would have been labeled prog and put the band in the company of Yes and Rush. But the North Carolina quartet arrived in the ‘90s, when the progressive rock label left a stain, so the group carved out its cult audience in indie rock drag. #Siberia#, Polvo’s sixth full-length, stays the masked prog course, working more melody and harmonies into its layers of guitar.
Some five years into a restarted career, Chapel Hill’s Polvo introduces a much-needed corrective to the weak spot in its catalog, their initial swan song Shapes. The classic-rock muscle proffered on that stalled effort spelled out the message of a band that had gotten tired of eardrum-bending progressive guitar sounds, infatuated with cultural tourism but grounded in a stoner jock mysticism preoccupied with loafing around the spice market. Why, then, when they tried to merge their piercing, elliptical rock with the muscle-car hesher set on Shapes, that it didn’t work, was because it felt like one of many moves done by a band that was giving up, and by all reports, falling apart.