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Polmo Polpo - The Science of Breath

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Artist: Polmo Polpo

Album: The Science of Breath

Label: Substractif

Review date: Aug. 15, 2002

Toronto is a long way from the ocean. Although it is a port, the last I checked Lake Ontario was a body of water not known for breeding large amphibian creatures. Toronto is not a high altitude town, and the air there, given the generalized Canadian faculty for social consciousness, is probably cleaner then most cities. Perhaps these factors make Polmo Polpo’s look at marine life and the exertions of breathing all the more brilliant.

Polmo Polpo’s (a.k.a. Sandro Perri) first full-length release, The Science of Breath, gathers four singles from limited edition 12-inches, and combines them with four new songs. The album is divided thematically – the previously released works delve into aquatic-based subject matter (loosely defined) while the new material is entirely devoted to breathing. Although it would seem Perri’s original intent was not to create this juxtaposition, given that the songs were not put together simultaneously, the two themes reconcile remarkably well on The Science of Breath. Positioned as a back and forth between the two concepts, the “water” tracks are (well, not to state the obvious) fluid and driven by steady rhythms. They are significantly longer than the “breathing” tracks, and cover great distances in terms of the moods they embrace. They are eminently danceable. The “breathing” tracks are artfully restrained and labored. In attempting to use music to convey the different styles of breathing, they rely on minimal changes and subtle variations to distinguish each method.

My first impression of The Science of Breath was entirely visual and led to a quick association. On the cover of the CD jacket there is a mushroom-colored octopus whose tentacles flail about and suggest agility. It is a striking photograph and it stands out dramatically from the glossy black background. It is also very similar to the artwork on Yo la Tengo’s most recent release, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, which has a pair of octopi copulating on its front cover. Not only that, I realized the two albums also share a comparable title.

A bit of research revealed that The Sounds of the Sounds of Science originated as the soundtrack for Jean Painleve’s nature films, and contains such cute titles as “How Jellyfishes are Born.” Although I had heard the Yo la Tengo album on a CD-R version, I had been unaware of the names to the noises I was listening to. Like most of the band’s recent work, I knew only that it was ethereal and sought to cast a soft, veneer of beauty over everything it touched. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science approaches the natural life of the deep sea in a dreamy, detached manner.

With this comparison established, Polmo Polpo’s originality took on a stronger merit. Instead of being satisfied with merely ascribing wonderment to nature and then trying to recreate this feeling with sound, Perri instead seems intent to give nature personality. While his songs are not exactly anchored in reality, they confront their subject matter head on. On “Oarca” a deep drilling sound hovers in the foreground while a metallic clashing noise lurks in the background. The clashing sounds as if it was produced by a high school theatre sounds crew, who decided that they had had enough of the Tempest and figured they could put their talents to better use. It never truly defines itself in the context of the song, but instead lurks on, echoing in the background.

“Acqua” and “Rottura” (Italian for “breach”) are both dance tunes that stand out because of their pace and blunt purpose. I was not surprised to hear that the original 12-inch LPs sold well in Europe. They are tracks that promote human interaction; a requisite amount of bumping and grinding. Although “Acqua” does include whales singing and towards the end descends into white noise, any DJ could toss it on the deck and satisfy his or her lounge. While “Rottura” is gloomier, it too contains a bass line made for club use. It is a beautiful piece that craftily doubles as both entertainment and introspection – a rare combination.

The “breathing” tracks are divided into four separate techniques of breathing, beginning with “High” and progressing to “Mid” and “Low.” The last track is titled “Complete Breath” and represents a method that incorporates all of the previously mentioned techniques. Perri has been helpful to provide with The Science of Breath a page of text that explores the positive and negative attributes of each breathing style. Perri censures “High Breathing” for being “the worst form of breathing known to man an requir[ing] the greatest expenditure of energy with the smallest amount of benefit.” Musically, the song “High Breathing” represents the same assessment – it consists primarily of a scratchy sound coupled with a distant high-pitched wailing – it is uncomfortable to listen to.

“Low Breathing,” a “far better” style of respiration, is achingly sparse and minimalist. It climaxes with the fleeting introduction of a wailing noise, and ends abruptly. Perri here is reminiscent of some of Oval’s more restrained work. “Complete Breath” includes components of the other three breathing tracks and runs it course without the strained motion of the other songs.

The Science of Breath blends musical dispositions that usually do not find themselves side by side. It is a valuable asset, and one that Polmo Polpo will hopefully continue to advance. Perri would be a welcome companion at a party (you know, the type people break it down at) or in the dark recesses of solitude where one turns their attentions to the mechanics of breathing.

By Andy Urban

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