In a year of so many turn-back-the-clock ’90s revivals, you’d be excused if you confused Polvo’s new album Siberia for a straight-up comeback effort, since it’s certainly of a piece with the year’s many returns-to-form you weren’t waiting for because you didn’t imagine them happening. But if you’re keeping score, the Chapel Hill quartet’s reunion actually came in 2008 with a post-hiatus album, In Prism, coming a year later. And anyway, it’s hard to chalk up Siberia as just a pleasant-surprise renaissance, because Polvo’s latest finds the group developing and pushing forward its craft after all these years, 20-plus since they started in 1990 — in effect, when Ash Bowie sings about “growing older in a college town” on the album, he could well be describing his band growing older in its college-rock niche. Picking up where the foursome left off as if the interval between petering out in 1999 and its 2008 reformation hadn’t happened, Polvo rides an eerie sense of continuity that ties Siberia to its bursts of creativity in the ’90s, with the band still taking seemingly incongruous factors like detuned guitars, Asian-influenced instrumentation, and out-of-step rhythms yet somehow striking on a formula where everything all adds up, now as then.
If anything, the math-rockers have come up with a set of more rigorous and inspired musical calculations than ever on Siberia, as Bowie’s and Dave Brylawski’s sinewy, slithering guitar lines intersect and play off each other in complex and oblique ways. What appears off-kilter and out-of-whack on paper, though, resonates in practice, as most of the unlikely permutations somehow work themselves out. The first few tracks on Siberia run through a gamut of guitar styles that Bowie and Brylawski have a deft hand with, like the way the opener “Total Immersion” matches up hard riffage and angular lines against a background of Eastern-tinged drone as if they were all meant to go together just like that. The appropriately named “Blues Is Loss” is even more ambitious and eclectic in its combinations, unspooling bluesy folk picking that morphs into an experiment in atonality that ascends with sitar-like explorations. More straightforward, relatively speaking, is “Light, Raking”, which slip-slides to rambling, reverby Dinosaur Jr.-ish alt-rock before breaking down into new-wavey groove that’s reminiscent of what Bowie brought to Helium during his stint with that band.
If the track lengths are a measure of anything, Siberia‘s compositions offer Polvo more space to stretch out its free-form guitar play, with most of the songs here running well past the five-minute mark. That room to roam is put to use especially well on “Water Wheel”, where Polvo definitely earns its bona fides as Sonic Youth’s next-of-kin — actually, you could make a decent case that the way the guitars wind and twist around each other with skewed melodies and spaced-out effects on “Water Wheel” carries on the SY torch as well as that band’s principals have with their plethora of recent solo projects. Yet as reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s sprawling guitar-centric epics as “Water Wheel” is, it never feels rote or derivative, with a sense of originality that’s driven home on Siberia‘s substantial closing piece, “Anchoress”. There, the versatility of Polvo’s multi-pronged stylistic blitz comes through more viscerally than anything else on Siberia, drawing you in with straightforward rock heft, but ultimately serving up a complex mix of Middle Eastern melodic patterns, textured feedback, and tricky, twitchy rhythms.
Yet even with everything that’s going on, Polvo’s aesthetic is more intricate than it is jammy or sloppy, never more apparent than when the group hits discordant notes on its idiosyncratic songs. “Changed”, for one, is an instance when Polvo’s formula doesn’t quite compute, unable to combine its mellow classic-rock themes and acute math-rock angles. More often, it’s a single component that can throw the balance off, particularly the cadences of Bowie’s quirky vocals, which sometimes adds one too many meandering elements to the mix. It doesn’t help, either, that the lyrics can come off more awkward than the delivery, throwing in some hiccups that break the flow and momentum of even the strongest tracks, like when Bowie sing-chants the album’s inauspicious first lines of “The hippy was gone before the lights came on / He got sick of the hippy chick” or gets too into his own head on “Water Wheel”, scatting, “You see the tiny fucking rainbows appear in the mist and before you realize, you’re hypnotized”). In short, just because seemingly anything goes on Siberia doesn’t mean everything actually sticks for Polvo.
These missteps, however, only underscore how well and how regularly Polvo pulls off its unlikely combination of off-key tones, out-of-sync beats, and careening rhythms. Whether it’s some kind of advanced calculus or an intangible chemistry between the bandmates, only Polvo can do Polvo, its distinctive sound reminding us of something we hadn’t realized we missed until it was experienced again anew.