[30 November 2008]
Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way: Devo. If you’re at all familiar with the endearingly geeky synth-punk antics of that band, then the comparison is inevitable. You’re going to, at first glance, view Polysics as the Japanese Devo. And it’s not as if Polysics does much to discourage being viewed through this filter: they emulate their heroes’ sense of fashion, only exchanging the iconic flowerpot hats for some awesome straight-bar sunglasses; their songs contain blatant references to the band, a chord progression from “Girl U Want” here and a wonky time signature from “Jocko Homo” there; and they, like Devo, keep straight faces in the midst of all the energetic, kitsch absurdity.
So yeah, it’s an obvious comparison, but it’s also one that does Polysics a disservice. Because Devo, for all their other accomplishments, have never come close to level the reckless, euphoric insanity demonstrated on We Ate the Machine.
Though their outright Devo worship does its best to make you think otherwise, Polysics’s sound is also influenced by several Western artists that don’t wear flower pots on their heads. In their music you can hear everything from the sonic experiments of Brian Eno to the motorik rhythms of Neu! to the lush synthscapes of XTC—all jacked up to hyperactive tempos that make even some of the more speed-obsessed punk bands feel like Starbucks-friendly adult alternative.
The absolutely breathless pace of We Ate the Machine is, in fact, its most salient aspect. There are very, very few quiet moments peppered throughout the album’s joyous schizophrenia. The most introspective Machine gets is on late album track “Blue Noise”, an upbeat synthpop ballad with guitarist Kayo’s voice vocoded into a hysterical, toy robot caricature—and as early as track number 4 of 14 (the very much in the red “I Ate the Machine”) it feels as if you’ve listened to an entire album plus a few bonus tracks. It sounds exhausting, but, against all conventional logic, it’s not.
This can be attributed to some remarkably unpredictable, playful songwriting. True, essentially every song here has the same basic goal—to rock as hard, as fast, and as schizophrenically as possible—but Polysics prove themselves capable of spinning some stunning variations on what should be a hopelessly constricting template. You’re as likely to get a punk breakdown in any given song as you are a chiptune freakout, and in many cases, as in the excellent “Arigato”, you’ll get both. The sheer sonic and structural variety on We Ate the Machine is as overwhelming as it is magnetic. And despite this rampant maximalism, the songwriting remains intelligent and things rarely degenerate into a slapdash cut-and-paste job.
The key word there is “rarely”: things don’t always hold together. While practically every element of side one’s songs are hooky and effortless—see the mechanized start-stop riff and Engrishy chorus of opener “Moog Is Love”—side two doesn’t fare quite as well. “Mind Your Head” is so fractal that it feels like seven different song ideas compressed into three minutes, and “Irotokage” proves that Polysics’s various eccentricities don’t translate very well to disco, even if that disco is playfully nerdy. The hyperactive bubblegum pop of “Boys & Girls” livens things up a bit, but even with this and a few other late album gems, one gets the impression that Polysics have already made their point.
But the fact remains that, even with these missteps, it’s one hell of a point. Polysics prove themselves to be far more than a contrived Devo tribute band, but they do reproduce at least one integral piece of Devo’s aesthetic: they make music on their own terms, and if you’ don’t “get” their brand of synth-damaged punk then they won’t mind. That just makes more room on the dance floor for the people who do.