Gentle pizzicato strings pluck at the far ends of the stereo field. They cradle a closely-miked bass that captures fingers grazing, caressing its frets. Though the tempo is a glacial 75 beats per minute, the listener is flung right up against the recording studio amps. Singer Channy Leaneagh’s voice enters a moment later, accompanied with a little underscore of a sound, whining low in the mix. This inaugural moment forms “Fake Like”, introducing the Poliça-Stargaze collaboration
Music for the Long Emergency, out 16 February. This interplay, both intimate and intense, is all over the album, an exchange that produces varying levels of success.
Poliça first burst onto the indie scene with
Give You the Ghost in 2011. The album was revelatory in making the Auto-Tune effect, by then an irritating gimmick, sound novel. But if the five-piece band (containing two drummers) had relied on this trope for their next two albums Shulamith and United Crushers, they would’ve been dead in the water. Instead, Poliça flirted with a variety of musical approaches, which culminates now in Music for the Long Emergency in collaboration with seven-piece orchestral group Stargaze (stylized as “s t a r g a z e”).
Hailing mostly from the Netherlands and now based in Berlin, Stargaze has a considerable list of collaborators: Nils Frahm, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Matthew Herbert, Deerhoof, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, to name a few. They’ve also performed Terry Riley’s
In C with none other than the minimal master himself.
Music for the Long Emergency was several years in the making. Its first glimmers arose in 2015, when lucky fans were treated to the project as part of St. Paul’s Liquid Music series, which, according to a local publication, focused on “innovative new projects and unique presentation formats in contemporary chamber music”.
The cover for
Emergency is a stylized photograph of a chic cafe, reminiscent of a museum restaurant. The shot is unnerving in the context of the album name, as there is not a single person present as if everyone had been evacuated after a drill – except this was not likely a drill. The album’s title coincides with the name of a decade-old book about the end of oil production, the enduring impacts of climate change, and the steady decline of modern society – quite relevant topics today.
The society-focused outlook continues Poliça’s turn away from the personal and toward the political began on their third effort,
United Crushers, though that record was abstract in circling around meaning. On Emergency, the message is readily evident. Tracks like the ten-minute “How Is This Happening”, written the day after the 2016 election and released as the album’s single, express complete helplessness without pointing a way forward. The song’s slow dirge, with its first vocal section and a lengthy improvisatory jam afterward, set forth by an insistent clanging, seem as if they go on forever (or certainly for three more years). This track, like the tender “Speaking of Ghost”, showcase the two bands at their best: rendering such ugly subject matter beautifully. On “Agree”, the result is lustrous.
For all the anxious rhetoric of its literary namesake,
Emergency flourishes when it avoids aggression. That makes tracks like “Marrow” and “Cursed” the least successful cuts. On an album with only seven tracks, it was probably difficult to cut these guys, but it would have been prudent. “Marrow” cranks up the apocalyptic strings to an absurd degree, only compounded by Leaneagh’s distorted screaming. At the very least, the sequencing is off, coming just after the more moderate opener “Fake Like”. “Cursed” features still more distortion with quick verses, rapid shuffling percussion, and dissonant strings that sound as out of place as Migos performing Trap Symphony. It’s a muddled mess of instruments fighting for each other, Stargaze struggling to provide something that matches the force of two drummers and a boatload of electronics. It illustrates that a dozen people playing together doesn’t always work out.
But let’s end on an up note, appropriately on the album’s closer that bears its name. The second of the two ten-minute tracks is the album’s highlight, a dazzling elegy to being truly lost. The song persists with a rush of noise for a full minute, mimicking staring into a black hole. Stargaze emerges out of the void with a wash of amorphous strings. A low piano note signals gloom, but in emphasizing each downbeat, it represents salvation as well, however tentative. The song’s second section is a swirl of strings and a loud synth line, which gives a space for the album’s final words: “Lost as I am / Lost as I can be.” Repeated as a mantra, they are soon rent apart electronically, leaving only the strings. The high frequencies are attenuated from the last of Stargaze’s notes, dulling the intensity while leaving the last bit of intimacy.