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Polvo - Siberia

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Artist: Polvo

Album: Siberia

Label: Merge

Review date: Oct. 1, 2013

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. Stacking every AOR rock move they knew into a few songs that sounded more like pisstakes on that sort of music than the real thing is never a great strategy. When a band makes a record of jokes after a string of innovative and highly-regarded works, attentions drift elsewhere.

Listeners of Polvo’s comeback album (2009’s In Prism) heard a band that was trying to get back to its roots, and mostly succeeding. Those rockist in-jokes were still there, though better efforts to integrate them into the band’s signature sound were evident. They’re even more so on the eight tracks that make up Siberia, the band’s sixth full-length. They also don’t feel like nodding references anymore, but a full component of Polvo’s latter-day sound. Some might see this as an oversimplification, or a hyper-referential POV for a band that already could be easily distinguished in their weight class. I suppose that is true, but it also makes for a tremendously satisfying and thunderous effort, and their finest work to date.

Guitarist Ash Bowie mentioned that the material on Siberia was thrown together much more quickly than its predecessor, and as a result, has a more adventurous sound. If that means they combed through record collections for inspiration, then it was time well-saved. “Changed” welds blistering Allman Bros.-esque to a coda of AC/DC stadium thud. “Some Songs” gets by on an amalgam of Zeppelin’s “Dancin’ Days,” early ‘80s Blue Oyster Cult style search, and a Steve Miller-style chorus that could have fallen out of “Jet Air Liner.” Synthesizers turn up to thicken and diversify the standard Polvo sound to significant ends, kinda like how Van Halen and ZZ Top made it work in the ‘80s, but more to the benefit of arrangements rather than a crutch to lean sagging material against. Opener “Total Immersion” storms in on a hopped-up version of the riff from Black Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat,” and adds some subsonic synth grunts below the bassline, which start growling about halfway through the six-and-a-half minute runtime, as Bowie and guitarist Dave Brylawski trade off stanzas of magic and metaphysics, soul transference and psychsploitation intrigue that “reconcile the parts / just to break my heart,” before collapsing into the sort of two-man/12-string tangle you’d expect from any great Polvo track. Like many of the albums longer excursions, this one doesn’t properly resolve, the song content to clash into the fadeout, stop abruptly (“The Water Wheel”) or dissolve into dissonant rhythms (“Anchoress”). This approach feels fresh and off-the-cuff, something Polvo hasn’t achieved since 1993’s Today’s Active Lifestyles. Only acoustic interlude “Old Maps” feels fully rehearsed, and its careful plotting and elegiac delivery feels earned after a suite of barnburners.

The familiar parts of Siberia also allow the listeners to find alternate ways inside this material, and what it means. “Light, Raking” starts off with brisk phrases about wizards and “a white wall of cocoons on display,” and through heavy synth leads, winds up being more about the disillusionment of staying in place (“It’s no joke when you’re chasin’ the bus / Growing older in a college town”). The album’s longest track, “The Water Wheel,” complete with its involved, Kansas-style hook and open passages of e-bowed guitar and fleeting rhythms, shows the band coming to terms with its past and its present, providing a metaphor about addiction that’s hard to miss, flecked with danger, and exciting through its whole eight-minute stretch. Magic only gets one so far before real life steps back in; the amount of time that we spend outside of reality only prolongs our inevitable recoveries to fall back into it without losing who we are.

That makes closer “Anchoress” all the more poignant; its protagonist, who dons the sacrificial mantle of her tribe, tries to come to terms with her task at hand. Set to a thumping, native beat and abetted by drum machines, it’s a tale more morbid than most material Polvo has considered to date, with a finality that burns with each repeat listen. If this indeed spells the end for Polvo, then their tale is one of complete redemption. With almost all of their contemporaries gone, no one’s making this sort of indie rock this good anymore. Should they be the only ones left to keep it up?

By Doug Mosurock

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