It opens with a barrage of riffing, and continues, for the most part, that way for the next fifty-odd minutes. That’s how Siberia, the sixth full-length album from veteran Chapel Hill, North Carolina rockers Polvo begins and ends, and marks their second brilliant release since reforming in 2008. If you’ve not had these guys in your life before now, then let me tell you why you should.
Formed in 1990 in the vibrant Chapel Hill scene that spawned the likes of Archers of Loaf, Superchunk and their label Merge Records, Polvo might well have been the best of their contemporaries. Led by singer/guitarist Ash Bowie, second guitarist Dave Brylawski, bassist Steve Popson and drummer Eddie Watkins, the band began with something of a false start in the form of debut Cor-Crane Secret but quickly began to perfect their post-punk riffing – a mix of the love of the hardcore SST label and the more angular style we’d come to know as post rock or math rock – and released the searing Today’s Active Lifestyles in 1993. The band then went big, and the sprawling double album Exploded Drawing expanded the band’s sound from the surgically-focused twin guitar assaults to psych, folk, hardcore and all points in between. It felt like an ambitious mission statement from a group not content to simply dole out the riffs to anyone who wanted them, yet it wasn’t followed by a step to the next level. 1997’s Shapes was a disappointment, angular riffs drifting into proggy excursions… and as a result Polvo simply ground to a sudden halt.
Yet the three core members of Bowie, Brylawski and Popson stayed close (drummer Watkins drifted away from the band) and eventually reformed at the request of Explosions in the Sky for All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2008. Joined by drummer Brian Quast, the band started to make music again and released in 2009 a fine comeback in the shape of In Prism. A much better album than Shapes, this was the sound of a band realising what their next step should have been back in 1997; full of energy and blistering guitars, it was Polvo making sure they wouldn’t blow it a second time. And four years on from that record, Siberia reaffirms just how brilliant this lot can be.
So, back to that opening: ‘Total Immersion’ sounds bloomin’ huge, Bowie and Brylawski’s guitars benefitting from improved production methods in the twelve years they were away, and Bowie sounds like a proper front man after years of being buried way down in the mix. Riff-wise, imagine if you will a mix of Dinosaur Jr and Fugazi, or the earliest incarnations of Slint – Polvo were always a bit harder-nosed than their fellow Chapel Hill bands.
The blistering assault continues with ‘Blues Is Loss’, which adds a classic rock flavour with its slight bluesy twang, yet Bowie and Brylawski’s guitars circle each other menacingly, trading angular with a more rounded style. ‘Light, Raking’ is the tightest rock song you’ll hear all year, riffing like it’s forever 1993 and delivering a stunning chorus that might be up with the best moments in Polvo’s career. Skipping past the slightly meandering ‘Changed’ which waits too long to deliver its Jimmy Page solo, ‘The Water Wheel’ brings together radio-friendly jangle and tricky time signatures to great effect on what’s the high point of Siberia. You’d forgive Polvo for taking their foot off the pedal, but they still bring the dreamy psych-folk ‘Ancient Grains’, the surging ‘Some Songs’ and the endless chug of closer ‘Anchoress’.
In 2013 there’s actually not really another band that sounds quite like Polvo does. The group’s sound always comes from within and there are no musical fads or genres that have come and gone since 1990 that have influenced the way Ash Bowie approaches a song. It’s always the 90s round Chapel Hill way, and while Polvo (and Superchunk) continue to produce music that’s as good and as unaffected by the passage of time as Siberia, then who would have it any other way?