Review Summary: Polyphia continue toward the path of accessibility, retaining their brilliant guitar work but losing any organic elements they had in the process.
For those new to the band's work, Polyphia is essentially a 4 piece instrumental prog rock band formed in 2014. They have yet to find a drummer they can stick with, but the guitarists and bassist are permanent members. Fans of their early work will surely be disappointed over the relative lack of drop- tuned chug riffs on this album. Polyphia have now gone strongly in the direction of super- catchy melody driven songs contrary to their more percussive counterparts Animals As Leaders and other bands in the genre.
What has always drawn me to Polyphia is their ability to create atmosphere and evoke emotion within often extremely complex song structures. Most of this album is extremely densely written, with many interweaving layers throughout most of the songs. The majority of the album really makes it sound like you are listening on top of a cloud, with many very etherial moments. I would go as far as to liken it to some 80's synth pop, which had a similar effect. Some of the standout tracks are the singles Nightmare and Crush. You will surely be humming these songs to yourself after the first listen. Crush utilizes some pretty heavy synthesizer harmonies to really emphasize the main chorus of the song.
You can't talk about Polyphia without discussing the guitar work. While there are a few moments that lull through in songs toward the middle of the album, the majority of the guitar work is fantastic. These guys really know their music theory and it shows through in a beautiful way. Strong use is made of bends, tremolo, and slides for many of the melodies, which gives a bluesy edge to the otherwise jazzy guitar parts. Guitarists Tim and Scott play at a level well beyond their years. Bassist Clay also makes a great contribution to the album, providing a very clean and solid bottom end. I will also add that this album features one of the best clean bass tones I have ever heard.
While the synth works exceedingly well in Crush and some other songs, it is also one of the downfalls of the album. There are a few songs where the overuse of samples really cheapens the feel of the song and makes it sound overly robotic, most notably in the opening seconds of Culture Shock, which features some very cheesy sounding orchestral samples.
One of the main complaints for this album so far is the production, specifically regarding the drums. This is a well- deserved criticism as at times the drumming is barely even audible over the many layers of guitars and synthesizers. The drumming in itself is also pretty lackluster, especially compared to their previous album, Muse which had some great beats. There is a human behind the kit, but it can be hard to tell at times. The cymbals especially are very washed out in the mix. The simplicity and EQ'ing of the drums make this album sound extremely polished and poppy, despite the virtuosity on display with the guitars and bass. Those that can't stand hot mixing may not be able to sit through the whole album as it is definitely heavily compressed. The production job really prevents this album from being a beautiful, natural masterpiece and places it sonically more in the realm of synth pop.
Overall, Renaissance is a very uplifiting and atmospheric experience, but it may be fatiguing for some due to the heavily compressed production job and heavy use of complex harmonies. Those looking for some really stellar guitar and bass work will definitely get their fix, unless they are only looking for Vai-esque shredding, which there is little of. I firmly feel at this point that the album deserves a rating of a 4, but only time will tell if this can stand up to many repeated listens.