Review Summary: “Shapes” shows Polvo completely flipping their approach and making a great record out of it.
Coming off of critical acclaim is sometimes very hard for musicians. There are bands that seemingly falter under the pressure of expectations and create sub-par material (Dillinger Escape Plan, Muse, U2, etc.) as well as other bands demonstrating that they just can’t make anything close to bad records (Radiohead, Converge, Queens of the Stone Age). It’s a rarity to be indifferent to expectations in the music industry, but somehow, Polvo are. Every release is exceptional with this band; bad material is simply absent from their discography. This release is a statement of consistency from Polvo.
Polvo are a noise rock band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, formed in the year 1990. Their initial lineup includes guitarist/vocalists Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski, bassist Steve Popson and drummer Eddie Watkins. Their first release was “Cor-Crane Secret”, which doesn’t show Polvo at their best, but it was a good introduction to their sound nonetheless. They followed that up with the classic 1993 release “Today’s Active Lifestyles” and garnered some critical acclaim in the process. They stayed on that acclaim plateau with their 1996 release “Exploded Drawing” as well. After “Exploded Drawing”, however, the band members of Polvo weren’t really getting along with each other. Watkins left the band to pursue different careers, Brylawski attended graduate school in New York and then moved to India, Bowie moved to Boston to see his girlfriend, and Popson was left at bay, waiting for the band to come. A full year went by before they decided to pick up where they left off and thus, their 1997 LP “Shapes” was recorded. “Shapes” shows a veteran Polvo switching up their sound a bit, trying to stray away from the post-punk tendencies of their past, exchanging that for a more progressive approach.
“Shapes” starts with the classic Polvo track “Enemy Insects” which immediately sounds like a different band. Instead of going for the grainy, slapdash sound of their previous releases, they opted for a more laissez-faire approach, exchanging the dissonant harmonies and slanted rhythms of their past for a more consonant and regular sound while still retaining their by and large experimentalist nature. It shifts riffs and dynamics kind of like Truman Capote shifts from protagonist to antagonist in “In Cold Blood”, offering the listener a window of nostalgia into the fuzzy days of their previous albums, to a new, leaner and cleaner rendition of the trademark Polvo sound. The verses demonstrate the bands newly found ability to create euphoric, sensual scenery with their music. Ash Bowie doesn’t do anything quite astonishing here vocally but his lower-pitch, intimate delivery adds to the ecstasy. This track travels along a predetermined verse-chorus-verse path until the band cuts prematurely and goes into an entirely different motif that combines the old with the new, creating a sort of dissonant elegance. Instrumentally speaking, it ain’t your daddy’s rock record but it does possess a conventionality different from their preceding works. “Enemy Insects” is one of the best opening tracks of any record I’ve ever heard.
From there, Polvo dive into “The Fighting Kites” which demonstrates a more cultured sound than they’ve ever had before, fit with (correct me if I’m wrong) mandolins and sitars. The band does a direct segue into “Rock Post Rock” which deceivingly recalls something similar to the intro of “Lazy Comet” off of “Today’s Active Lifestyles” only to surprise listeners with a strum upon a distorted guitar a la “Stars” by Hum. This song has somewhat of a jam mentality and is quite enjoyable to listen to. Ash Bowie demonstrates his guitar ability very well in this track with a couple of riff-tacular solos. The song carries a very lax, mellow, feel to it, proving to be another great track on “Shapes”. “The Golden Ladder” appears shortly after and comes off as very redundant but it’s not all that bad. “Downtown Dedication”, the next track, is a certain album highlight and re-adopts the old sleazy sound without the fuzz. It sounds pretty different compared to previous Polvo albums, a recurring theme of “Shapes”.
Further in the LP we get as “Twenty White Tents” emerges and plays. This song is also different from the past releases as we get to hear some haunting piano melodies alongside Ash Bowie’s mellow singing and guitar playing. This song appears at first to be just a mellow change of pace but a feeling of paranoia appears in the form of an aggressive distorted guitar motif. This catches the listener off guard and then recedes back to the former delicacies of the song. This unpredictability keeps the listener on their toes; interested in the LP. “Twenty White Tents” is yet another highlight on this stellar collection of songs, showing us the more beautiful side of Polvo. Speaking of unpredictability, the band takes a complete turn and gives the listener a dose of nostalgia in the form of “Everything In Flames!”; a song that recalls the sloppy math rock of “Today’s Active..”. The same is even more apparent with “D.D – S.R”, a sloppy rocker of a track. After being knocked around a bit by the two post-punk songs of the album, materializing is the 12 minute “El Rocio”. This is a track of epic proportions, swirling through motif after motif eventually closing in forest inferno fashion. The album closes with “Lantern” and rightfully so as this track is a wonderful ending piece. The band hops back into the Delorean and travels back to 93’, bringing some of the new innovations of their sound with them. The song ends abruptly after the line “Time is such a deceiver”, putting a clever cherry atop a wonderful ice cream sundae of an album.
Concisely, Polvo record an album that can stand up to their goliath 2nd release “Today’s Active Lifestyles” with “Shapes”. This album boasts a new and improved progressively styled sound much alienated from the former; a more harmonically inclined and mature sonic blueprint. I’d recommend this LP to anyone who loves musical ingenuity or anything supposedly taken aback from the norm. “Shapes” prove that Polvo are not only innovators in indie noise rock, but consistent ones as well. Pick this one up if you can find it.