Polvo In Prism

[Merge; 2009]

Styles: math rock, 90s guitar twisty-ties
Others: Sonic Youth, Don Caballero, Breadwinner, Karate, Silkworm, Chavez

If fans are lucky, a reunion album isn't a complete embarrassment. If they're really lucky, the reunited band might even sound like they've picked up right where they left off, in that hazy, pre-internet world of fanzines and jamming econo, like Dinosaur Jr.’s recent victory laps. Polvo might be the first band ever to come out of a decade of slumber with the best possible entry point to their work. And in this bright, young, web-enabled world, those listeners will be far more numerous than the band ever had at their mid-90s peak.

In Prism’s genius is to service the newbies and true believers in equal measure. The opening riffs of the leadoff alternate-universe chart-topper “Right the Relation” spring fully-formed from the midst of Today’s Active Lifestyles’ “Stinger (Five Wigs),” for the trainspotters in the audience. But it’s the new, not the old, that commands attention from the get-go. The janky guitars and dying amps have apparently been tossed out the back of the van in favor of crushing heaviness with a hi-fi sheen verging on metallic and clean, echoing guitar tones almost reminiscent of Band of Horses. And Ash Bowie’s vocals have never sounded better. So this is what Polvo would have sounded like with proper gear! The resulting timbres are more reminiscent of their 90s peers in Chavez than might have been expected, and it even raises a surprising question of the crossover potential that Chavez never quite brought to bear. But in a decade that saw Modest Mouse bust down Billboard’s doors, when it once seemed required by law to describe both their and Polvo's guitars as “angular,” why not?

The ‘math-rock’ tag always came more from the band’s overt "Eastern" influences rather than the weird time signatures. But on In Prism, funnily enough, the reverse seems to be true; we’re not talking about 9/16 time here, but there seem to be more metrical hiccups than non-Western modes. The ominous opening of “Lucia” even sounds more like slowcore, the other perennial 90s also-ran indie subgenre, as played by Karate or Bedhead. The closest analog to the album's overall tone, though, might be another successfully streamlined brand name known for its noisier past: Jim O'Rourke-era Sonic Youth.

Polvo have always maintained a great sense for melody at the dynamite heart of their exploding ideas, which is what elevated them head and shoulders above the mathematical masses to become critical favorites in the first place. Sound quality notwithstanding, the biggest sea change on In Prism is the stripped-down melodic sensibility that casts the proceedings in elemental pentatonics and even the occasional major key, while the song structures perform the old duck-and-weave or, occasionally, meander.

The only bone to potentially pick is that the Polvo of In Prism doesn’t mind repeating a riff eight times without variation, when four would be just as effective. Plenty of bands do that, especially in the metal realm at which In Prism casts a few sidelong glances, but at their best, Polvo didn’t, and that was one of the reasons their particular brand of complexity was so interesting: it yielded tiny, intense, two-minute nuggets compacted into dwarf-star density. Of course, they would always stretch out, most notably at either end of Exploded Drawing, but there doesn’t always seem to be a good reason for In Prism’s bloated run times. Still, if an album full of five-minute-plus songs is what it took to get this band back in the studio, they can go ahead and make five more just like it.

1. Right the Relation
2. D.C. Trails
3. Beggar's Bowl
4. City Birds
5. Lucia
6. Dream Residue/Work
7. The Pedlar
8. A Link in the Chain

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