The release of an excellent new album by Polvo, a band who was mainly active in the years 1990-1998, took me back to that golden age of leftfield American guitar music, when bands such as Polvo, Fugazi, Slint, Unwound, Lync, Codeine and Come formed and recorded their classic albums. These bands’ post-hardcore music was based on intricate, gritty and experimental guitar interplay, a particular style of powerful, dominant and musically articulate drumming, and an especially wide range of dynamics – from whisper to scream, from quiet to loud, from abrupt and repetitious to immersive and driving. I was fortunate enough to live in New York City at the time and see some of these bands play live in intimate places like CBGB’s and Brownies in the East Village.
It was not long after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the supposed triumph of capitalism over socialist ideas, and all around me, in student, literary and artistic circles, it was suddenly cool to be commercially minded and keep up with wall street and have an investment portfolio. Meanwhile, the success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” signalled an unprecedented co-option by major record labels of a musical world that until then had been happily flourishing in college radio stations, underground venues and independent record shops. As the notion of a US counterculture was being squeezed into near non-existence, people who didn’t wise up to the new moneymaking ethos were no longer seen as dedicated or uncompromising or free-spirited artists, they were just losers.
However, in places like Chapel Hill, Washington DC, Louisville, Olympia and Boston, gifted, opinionated and often erudite musicians, who had probably heard one too many Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. or Hüsker Dü record, opted out. They chose to remain and continue to create as relative outsiders, for whom the word “alternative” still came attached to the word “tuning”, and “indie” rhymed with DIY.
A moment before the internet took over, these people formed a seam-side network in which you could always sleep on someone’s couch after a gig in a strange town, go to the local store and rummage through piles of obscure vinyl seven inches, and find a used Ludwig snare or 60s guitar or legendary Digitech delay pedal for next to nothing in someone’s shed.
They made sprawling, intense and frequently complex music, which ventured out into the wilderness in the best American tradition, pushing through highways and vast open spaces to explore risky frontiers, only to keep running into the dysfunctional, screeching and dissonant noise of inner cities and broken-down cars, into the emptiness and claustrophobia of machines, metal and concrete. They produced a chaotic, angular, visceral sound, loose, organic and improvisational in feel, but measured with the cryptic density of a strange science. They wrote songs as if every time they picked up the guitar they were trying to write the great American novel, or as if each song was the first song ever written.
Polvo’s new album “Siberia” pretty much picks up where the band left off with 1997’s “Shapes” and the 2009 comeback album “In Prism”, adding some touches of 60s Syd Barrett-type prog-psychedelia and an enhanced depth of sound to the beautiful discordant noise of old. Two decades later, Polvo are still orbiting in an alternative world of their own: extraterritorial, microtonal and macro-visionary.