The biggest take-away for me from the Portals Festival in May was Poly-Math. Their half-hour set was an object listen in how to play an eviscerating set of complex and edgy instrumental music whilst keeping it engaging and entertaining. The playing was superb and they more than looked the part, so at the end I legged it to the merch table and picked up their Melencolia EP.
As I noted at the time, “it’s like the bastard offspring of early-King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator and NoMeansNo after a particularly boozy lunch” – and that remains the case with new album Zenith. Released in mid-November and supported by a number of dates around the UK and Ireland, it is ready to stun unsuspecting audients with it’s cudgel-like attack, the first release to feature the quintet line-up I witnessed at Portals, after the recent introduction of saxophonist Chris Olsen.
Based in London and Brighton, Poly-Math have honed their skills via a selection of EPs, a double album and two collaborative projects in their near-ten year career. Zenith is an eight track assault on the senses that grabs you like a rabid dog and never lets go. This is monumental stuff that keeps moving in jagged riffy bursts, but that does not mean that it is lacking melody amid the intent, and anyone with a liking for the artists named above – or others of their ilk – would do well to give Poly-Math a go.
The music could be regarded as ‘difficult’, but that would be selling it short and put off listeners who might well enjoy being carried along on the band’s ‘rocket sled to oblivion’ racket. It’s big, brash and confidently presented, the addition of sax making it even more addictive and compelling. Kenny G this ain’t.
The PR blurb is not wrong when it says “concise and consistent, focussing on complex instrumentation, huge, crowd pleasing riffs and diverse poly-rhythms”, most of the pieces weighing in at around the four-minute mark.
The thumping title track hits you with upfront growling bass and broken rhythms, guitar sliding around in menacing fashion. Skronking sax takes us to a Krimsonic breakdown and soaring ascent. You really do need to strap yourself in before setting this baby rolling! The sax returns in a more strident iteration towards a cacophonous climax, before receding to an extended outro. But don’t rest! Velociter charges in on waves of metallic guitar and surfing sax with grungy bass support; a fist-fight in an abattoir, electric piano and staccato Frippian chords chiming into the shrieking maelstrom. There’s some respite in the Mellotron-esque charge for the tape, revolving sax phrases spinning us into orbit, but the intensity returns to a brutal full-stop.
Charger takes a more measured path on a steady bass, but the intent is clear and guitars chime around the framework, as if trying to find a way to escape. Sax flutters and builds before finally exploding, quickly reining back to Frippian guitar. Canticum‘s second part arrives on a wall of sound ahead of the first, the insistent guitar drive is infectious as it moves into a sax section redolent of early KC and VdGG. The mid-section is more thoughtful, beautifully built around layered saxophones. Canticum‘s first part checks in on a knotty guitar, but is generally more magisterial despite the momentum, and the two parts form a compelling whole. The end section is breathtakingly malevolent!
Densely cycling fast picked guitar adds a KC vibe to the start of Proavus, but the metallic sax-driven heft of the spiralling edifice when it finally collapses in on itself comes from a different time. Drums take on a punky intensity as the music races headlong – towards or away, we cannot confirm; there is bravado and terror in equal measure. Unbelievably it all ramps up again towards the end on an ascending and flourishing pattern, a tidal wave of unstoppable sound, all of it with purpose and definition. Bloody marvellous!
Mora is a much needed breather, underwater keys leading to a mournful sax part. The guitar goes all wobbly Dick Dale as the rhythm section circles, like ravenous hyenas around a stricken gazelle. Again, it’s all beautifully measured, and raw enough to keep you completely hooked. Finally, Metam brings everything to a fitting close, reflecting KC’s Starless whilst signposting the darkest recesses of the mind. I get hints of recent Opeth, Scandinavian melancholy shot through with ’60s guitar rock and gnarly punkiness. They certainly have a horror soundtrack in them, should the opportunity arise, and it all ends with the hero/victim finally making it to the highest room in the castle, only to find the object of the quest guarded by thousands of hungry orcs. And it’s dinner time. Fuck.
The physicality of the drive throughout this album is built on the live work that has made this band what it is, a trailblazer of demonic complexity, steeped in the ways of the early pioneers. At times during Zenith you get a similar feel to King Crimson in their earliest days; the energy, the vibrant thrill of discovery, the menacing growl.
Live is where the incendiary mayhem takes full flight, and if you enjoy a good dose of questioning angularity, Zenith will be launched at Signature Brew in London on 12th November, in a three-way show with A Formal Horse and Thumpermonkey – JUST TAKE MY MONEY!!
01. Zenith (4:04)
02. Velociter (4:39)
03. Charger (4:28)
04. Canticum II (6:07)
05. Canticum I (3:51)
06. Proavus (4:37)
07. Mora (3:51)
08. Metam (5:32)
Total time – 37:09
Joe Branton – Bass
Joshua Gesner – Keyboards
Chris Olsen – Saxophone
Timothy Walters – Guitars
Chris Woollison – Drums
Andrew Hall – Trumpet (track 4)
Record Label: Nice Weather For Airstrikes Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 18th November 2022