On their first album, Birthday (2019), Pom Poko delighted in confounding expectations and taking their brazen sounds to giddy extremes. With Cheater, the band are essentially repeating the process with even more confidence. This is a group that doesn’t believe in coming up for air. Fortunately for the listener, their sound – best described as melodic punk with occasionally arty turns into stuttering prog and jazz – has an addictive quality, like a kind of musical sugar rush.
Consisting of vocalist Ragnhild Fangel, guitarist Martin Miguel Tonne, bassist Jonas Krøvel, and drummer Ola Djupvik, Pom Poko are among those bands that make you really hate lockdowns. This is music that demands to be experienced in person. They’ve established a reputation as an explosive live act, and hearing any of the ten songs on Cheater – not a dud among them – it’s easy to see why. Led by Tonne’s knotty, distorted guitar work and Fangel’s angelic, playful vocals, the quartet locks into frenetic grooves, often stopping on a dime to indulge in odd time signatures and idiosyncratic diversions. Beginning the album with a bang, the title track blows the doors down with a melodic pop-punk vibe as Tonne’s distorted harmonics lay out the song’s spine, and the rhythm section chugs away. The song slows down long enough to slam down some deliberate power chords over Fangel’s sweet, soaring voice.
That first song contains enough variety to fill a lesser album, but Pom Poko has plenty of additional tricks up its sleeve. “Like a Lady” would seem right at home among 1990s alt-rock playlists with its loud-quiet-loud dynamics and supple groove. But it’s not just retro posturing. Like so much of the album, the song is smartly crafted with the perfect combination of hooks and cracked guitar pyrotechnics. By design or complete accident, Pom Poko appears to be inventing a new musical genre.
Under the surface of many of these songs lies highly sophisticated, relatively conventional song structure – often it’s just melded with deeply odd but curious instrumentation and execution. “Andrew”, for example, contains infinite pop song pleasures, albeit with odd bits of guitar squonks, tight stop/start sections, and groaning bass distortion. But that slice of tweaked power-pop is followed by “My Candidacy”, which toggles back and forth between breakneck punk melodicism and noise-addled no-wave balladry. Unpredictable songcraft has never sounded this deliriously mad.
Other highlights on Cheater include the propulsive, quasi-metal hurricane-force bruiser “Andy Go to School”, the thorny, angular “Baroque Denial”, and the sweet, highly syncopated “Body Level”, which sees Pom Poko bringing Cheater to an uncharacteristically subdued close. Finishing off an album of maniacal, sugarcoated spikes with such a warm blanket of pop heaven is exactly the kind of thing Pom Poko would do. Just when you think you’re in for another delightful head-scratcher of a song, the group tuck you in and kisses you on the forehead. Here’s hoping this amazing band continue to be weird and fun. Predictability would never suit them.