We put one of Chapel Hill’s greatest exports under the microscope, assessing their era-defining body of work.
In the late ’80s few people had any idea that a cultural hotbed would evolve the way it did in the idyllic backdrops of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Since these times, as the way these things often transpire, it is difficult be rekindled. Sometimes it never is.
In a scene that saw a slew of local acts cutting 7″ inch singles and throwing them out there to see if they stuck, four young men emerged from these shadows and, with the benefit of hindsight, could be defined as nothing less than kings of the underground.
Their name was Polvo.
The original line-up consisted of vocalists/guitarists Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski, bassist Steve Popson, and drummer Eddie Watkins.
Polvo conjured up a synapse of sound that was truly their own, to the point where no other band has since come close to re-imagining. Most wouldn’t even dare try, knowing full well that failure would be emphatically inevitable.
While Polvo‘s external presentation of sound didn’t seem a world away from other ’90s touchstone artists that surfaced after the groundswell of grunge, Polvo‘s underbelly was lined with something far more resilient and wider-reaching than any of the other artistic crop that formed the golden landscape of American ’90s culture from anything to noise, math, post and alt-rock.
Polvo had an uncanny ability to project their tentacles and drag you into a distorted world of captivating uncertainty. They provided the masterclass of illusion.
While many pointed towards the usual comparisons to Sonic Youth, again, taking Polvo‘s inner-layer into consideration and there was so much more at play, with ’70s psychedelia being a distinguished presence within their sonic framework.
Listening to Polvo was as close to a psychedelic drug experience from the ’60s in the company of the Grateful Dead in a field littered with strung-out hippies.
Then there was Ravi Shankar who, during their four album tenure in the ’90s, Polvo pretty much mongrelised and eviscerated to form a rampant representation of oscillating noise-rock.
Between Bowie and Brylawski, there was a unique, diseased virtuosity whereby the pair seemed to have different ways of communicating with their instruments when compared to any of their contemporaries.
Stylistically and technically, it was like they were talking a completely different language, bending notes that shouldn’t even be entertained let alone produced, seamlessly guiding their listeners down blind futile alleys, only to emerge into a new cinematic landscape.
It was music that completely expanded your mind, opening up a world that illuminated a panoramic view of possibilities.
Polvo weren’t anthemic by any means but there were moments where they created that feeling. It was their own way of producing heart-stopping melody.
Their own world.
Because Polvo were very much world builders. The difference with Polvo was that they were the only ones who ever existed in it and to this day, that fact remains.
While the capitalist machine and greed-is-good mantra was in full-swing in the early ’90s, many bands of this era were sold the hollow dream of producing some form of ‘product’ for the ‘consumer’.
Like Fugazi, Polvo weren’t interested in this game, instead subtly poking fun at those who were hoodwinked down this path that led to a supposed new dawn of product culture which eventually led to globalisation.
Polvo knew better than to be tricked into plastic worlds and were more than happy to sabotage their existence in order to remain true to their ethos. It wasn’t the naive notions of “it’s all about the music maaan”, either. It was a collective nonchalance for any world that wasn’t the brave and original one of their own.
Looking back and my personal relationship with Polvo runs deep with emotional triumph and turmoil.
Having disbanded after their meandering 1998 oeuvre in Shapes, Polvo‘s return came by way of invitation from Explosions In The Sky to perform at the first All Tomorrow’s Parties Minehead event in 2008. This followed an appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound several weeks later.
At this point, Watkins (who, in 2016, sadly passed away at the age of 47) was replaced behind the skins by Brian Quast, formerly of Vanilla Trainwreck and The Cherry Valence.
Taking the stage at 2pm on Sunday, it was a surreal experience seeing tracks like Feather of Forgiveness and Fast Canoe. Moments that I never thought possible, but in true ATP fashion, when they were hot, they were the hottest in the game.
Meeting Ash Bowie afterwards, and it pretty much told me all I needed to know about this band. Modest, shy and a band completely all about the music.
Having moved back to Australia from the United Kingdom in 2009, the move was one of the most difficult times in my life up to that point. I just wanted to be back in the U.K. and couldn’t shake the feeling. Living in a new city and knowing barely a handful of people coupled with working in a soul destroying job, the only source of comfort at the time was Polvo‘s In Prism. The best ‘comeback’ album made in the last 20 years (more on that later).
Once again in the personal stakes, Polvo were the last band I listened to before my wife passed away in 2018. I couldn’t listen to Polvo for two years because of that. That last note of In Prism‘s closing number, A Link in the Chain faintly stirring in the back of my mind for months on end. That link (pardon the pun), broken and seemingly forever.
So being reacquainted with Polvo‘s music is a step in the right direction to, indeed, start again. And when this band is involved, it usually consists of starting from where it all began.
On that note, we present a history of one of the most valuable jewels in underground music’s crown.
Welcome to the bipolar world of Polvo.
Cor-Crane Secret (1992)
What an introduction it is. Polvo don’t throw the curtains open to their listeners on Cor-Crane Secret and instead gently twitch them to give us a momentary glance into their newly erected cosmos. The attitude is about as intangible and cunning as their sound.
Opener, Vibracobra, explodes with jagged eastern rhythms and tattered drones Godspeed You! Black Emperor would later master during the decade.
Onto Kalgon and, well, American music had never heard such a thing up to this point. A storm cloud of lethal thunderbolts with dislocated percussion that bunny-hops and weaves in and out of Brylawski‘s infamous riff-bending, it was something that shattered the senses and in essence, went on to be the hallmarks of the Polvo sound.
Bend or Break sounds like the song Sonic Youth couldn’t write. It’s a track that howls across razor wire.
Channel Changer and The Curtain Remembers drip with melodic delight with Bowie once again rising above those buzz-saw guitars and that peerless Polvo chime. Bowie isn’t the greatest vocalist to grace the earth but his voice flawlessly compliments this raging beast. Some things just have a habit of working and Bowie‘s vocals are a vital cog in this machine.
Then there’s Well is Deep, a low-end bass ambush with needled guitars akin to scratching a chalkboard.
Closing track, Duped, emphatically concludes Cor-Crane Secret, bottling up the preceding thirty-five minutes in just under three, with more off-kilter rhythms, stop-start drum fills and a new born bedlam that rag-dolls the mind.
The production of Cor-Crane Secret is the album’s slight blemish, although it’s harsh to describe it as that. In many respects it’s a debut album in every sense, but the songs are so strong, had the fairy dust of Bob Weston been readily available at this point, then Cor-Crane Secret could have been heralded as Polvo‘s finest hour.
Thankfully, both aspects were yet to come.
Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)
Many regard Today’s Active Lifestyles as their primary go-to Polvo record.
Granted, it’s the album that represents Polvo‘s most experimental adventures, taking things from conventional to the ridiculous. A band at their most roguish and untamed with incongruous timing signatures and psychedelic sculptures of sound.
It was the first album to involve Bob Weston at the recording helm, but still, on the whole, in my opinion, Today’s Active Lifestyles failed to fully represent Polvo‘s deafening maelstrom.
One suspects seeing these tracks live during this period would have been met with a vastly different experience to that on tape. More visceral, perhaps.
Whilst drawing to this conclusion, there are sporadic flashes of brilliance that are found on Today’s Active Lifestyles.
None more so than opening number, Thermal Treasure – one of the finest tracks the band has written. A hell-storm that swells with fevered riffs and tumbling percussion and a firm favourite among Polvo fans which was a regular inclusion through the band’s live sets during the ’90s and when the band reconvened in the ’00s.
The debris of twisted-metal that is Tilebreaker sees Bowie capture those melodic moments that filled Cor-Crane Secret, providing a nice balance between the more adventurous moments on Today’s Active Lifestyles.
Along with Cor-Crane Secret, Today’s Active Lifestyles was re-issued earlier this year. The latter with the original artwork having been altered shortly after the initial album release due to a lawsuit from the artist, Andy Freeburn.
For those who haven’t delved into Polvo yet, it’s a bit like indulging in something that tastes a bit, well, interesting. Once used to the taste, it’s at the very least manageable. Today’s Active Lifestyles is very much that meal on the menu.
Celebrate the New Dark Age (1994)
By this point, the beast was somewhat fed.
Many class Celebrate the New Dark Age as a Mini-LP, but at seven songs and twenty-five minutes, it’s an album every day of the week.
Whichever camp you are in, there’s no doubting that Celebrate the New Dark Age is one of Polvo‘s finest releases and certainly a bridge that provides the gateway towards the band’s most prolific period.
Opener, Fractured (Like Chandeliers) is a sprawling siege of fractured math-rock with riffs that twist and churn, sounding like a washing machine full of kitchen knives.
The frenetic voyage of Tragic Carpet Ride spits glass with Popson‘s bowel juddering bass lines, which grow more prominent as Polvo reach their crescendo of ingenuity.
Solitary Set is the beginning of Bowie portraying, shall we say, conventional songwriting methods and is a taste for what’s to come with Polvo‘s following releases.
“In the simple ideal/Good conscience cannot be blamed/But the truth is not real/And the cycles are still unnamed.”
Lyrically, it’s not Bowie‘s only arresting moment on Celebrate the New Dark Age. Closing track, Virtual Cold, perhaps unearths his most glistening jewel yet.
“Rusty players who look the part/Crystal stars and lucky hearts/Anecdotes and collective sighs/New admiration and graceful tries/Even if real life is put on hold again/We will find our strength in the virtual cold/My friend/Sweet spectre that comes on cue/Modern myths that must be true/Quick confessions that make good sense/Share secrets in the future tense.”
Along with Bowie‘s songwriting, the band seemed to be in a groove of tinkering with their sound template, with quiet/loud build-ups and veering bass lines underpinning a re-imagined sound that saw Polvo careering towards the summit. There’s no better example of this than the title track that sees the band injecting a new born energy into their already frightening aesthetic.
It’s the first glimpse of both Polvo and Weston forging those golden shards of noise.
While still holding onto the sonic dexterity of Today’s Active Lifestyle, there’s a notable shift on Celebrate the New Dark Age that feels more focused and positively jarring. There’s a definitive less-is-more approach during these seven songs, which exemplifies the burning spirit that Polvo go on to preserve.
This Eclipse (1995)
Polvo enlisted producer, Brian Paulson (Slint, Archers of Loaf, Wilco, Mark Eitzel et al.), for their 1995 EP, This Eclipse.
Paulson would feature later in the Polvo story, but at the time the move was slightly odd considering the traction the band had gained alongside Bob Weston.
With hindsight it proved to be a brilliant move. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, This Eclipse continued Polvo‘s fine run of form.
It was the band’s last release in the ’90s to feature on Merge and a poignant swansong at that. Again, with hindsight, it was a case of the band leaving home but not leaving the family.
First track, Batradar, picks up where the band left off on Celebrate the New Dark Age with blazing guitar interplay and crushing off-kilter melodies. A track that could easily find its way on a Polvo best-of compilation.
The remainder of This Eclipse tones down the aggression considerably.
Bombs that Fall From Your Eyes and closing number, Title Track, being spatial heaven-floating incursions that weigh heavily on the tender side of Polvo‘s offerings. Unbridled adventures of post-rock with the band’s ever evolving lineage.
With This Eclipse, Paulson captured a cleaner sound behind the studio glass but without impinging on the band’s anxious intensity.
Along with Celebrate the New Dark Age, a newly formed cadence emerged for the band where they arrived upon untrodden recesses.
They were on the cusp of something special and This Eclipse proved to be a very able curtain-raiser.
Exploded Drawing (1996)
Touch and Go Records
It feels remiss not to dedicate a whole piece just to this album.
Having parted with Merge Records in favour of Corey Rusk‘s equally revered Touch and Go Records, Polvo became the first (and only) band from Chapel Hill to sign to the label.
Once again, the band resumed their all encompassing coalition with Bob Weston, enlisting the maestro behind the studio glass, this time at the brilliantly coined Squid Hell Studios.
The Weston/Polvo alliance proved to be at its most prolific on Exploded Drawing, the band’s fourth full-length album.
In Weston‘s case, it’s arguably his finest work as a producer/recorder, finding rare flammable spaces where most would still be looking.
Everything on Exploded Drawing illuminates with vitality, from the bristling bass lines to gun-fire riff-a-rolla that sprays and bounces in every direction. And, as always, Watkins‘ ever present dislocated pile-driving rhythms remain steadfast.
An album that represents its namesake in every single way.
From the opening notes of the woozy substance-addled bop of Flesh Canoe, as a listener, you just knew that Polvo were about to fulfil their potential on Exploded Drawing.
The skittish Bridesmaid Blues follows and is hemmed in nicely between Flesh Canoe and one of Polvo‘s finest tracks ever written in the passive/aggressive splendour that is Feather of Forgiveness.
“I want to cover you with flowers of forgiveness/I want to touch you with the feather of forgiveness/I want to put you in a light that will hurt your eyes/I want to cover you with flowers of forgiveness.”
Up until this point, you couldn’t have described Bowie as a poet, per se, but here his scorching aptitude for the written word places him in this very broad-church of word-smiths. And on Exploded Drawing there are a swathe of these horizon-reaching stream-of-conscious laments.
Crumbling Down and High-Wire Moves are a pair of short-sharp offerings that collectively contain melodies that rip, burn and could melt a wall of ice.
Then there’s In This Life where Bowie‘s abstract musings once again rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
“Don’t be ashamed to paint a picture of yourself/You don’t need to make it look like anybody else.”
One can’t help but think it’s a subtle dig at those contemporaries mentioned earlier who fell victims to the ruse of consumerism.
The Purple Bear is Polvo entwining pop ideals within their firmly established mind-bending sonic cauldron. It’s Polvo at their most playful and while certain passages throughout Celebrate the New Dark Age hinted towards such sensibilities, on The Purple Bear they admirably embrace the notion.
Taste of Your Mind feels like the closet thing Polvo have made which could constitute a love song. That’s the thing with Polvo and in particularly Bowie‘s messages, though. Masked in vagueness and subterfuge, the track could mean something completely different.
The ambiguity of Bowie‘s lyrics are one of his greatest talents as a songwriter and perhaps the band’s most underrated characteristic.
Many say Exploded Drawing is one of the finest double albums in underground music history. I’d say it’s one of the finest double albums ever made.
For its fifty-eight minutes, Exploded Drawing is a gilded pendulum, brimming with mind-warping layers and killer vapour trails of sound.
On Exploded Drawing, there’s a peculiar form of pathos coupled with a sweltering atmospheric intensity that no band during the ’90s could match. Music that is, quite simply, intended to lift your feet from the floor.
Here, the band took their audience by the hand, navigating them through narrow corridors which lead to the holy grail of new-world landscapes.
It’s not only Polvo‘s masterpiece. Exploded Drawing is a masterpiece.
Touch and Go Records
Explosions. Implosions. The combustibility of art.
However, this wasn’t entirely the case with Polvo. It was probably more of a blasé disregard.
Following the success of Exploded Drawing, things started to recede for kings of Chapel Hill.
Bowie was living in Boston with his then girlfriend Mary Timony, where the duo went on to record and release an outstanding album under the Timony spearheaded Helium – The Magic City, which followed-up 1995’s The Dirt of Luck. Bowie featured on the latter album, too, devoting his time between the two projects.
Brylawski went on a sabbatical to India and his findings, whether spiritual, artistic – or indeed both – shone through the most on Shapes.
In any case, it seemed that Polvo were yesterday’s concern with individuals moving towards other aspects of life, for Shapes is an album that the band quickly disregarded and to this day, that opinion still seems prevalent.
In short, it shouldn’t be.
Whilst vastly different from Polvo‘s previous recordings, Shapes is perhaps the album that makes you understand the mechanics and feral engineering of the machine that is Polvo. An excavation deep into the discovery of band’s roots.
With Bob Weston once again enlisted to twiddle the knobs, both he and Polvo capture a certain spark that may have been obscure at the time, but with the advantage of years gone by, has radiated evermore.
That’s the thing about the past. It never quite belongs as much to the past as one thinks.
It all starts with Enemy Insects. A fractured folk number with Bowie‘s ever burgeoning poeticism providing the leading lights.
“Danger pauses when you are near, peculiar stranger, I’ll know you’re here/Curious children ought to run and hide or appear at the window to look inside/Whispers gather in the atmosphere, silent thinker with X-ray ears.”
Then there’s Downtown Dedication. A ’70s psych freak-out that could have been conjured up after a spiking of the Shankar family’s communal fruit punch. The frenzied horn section, part mariachi, part Mile Davis inspired. This was Polvo at their most unhinged, wearing influences on their sleeve, providing fascinating results.
If anything, Twenty White Tends sounds like an indie-rock lullaby, while the lo-fi trashcan clamour of Everything in Flames kicks with Brylawski‘s riffs and punches with Popson‘s bulging bass.
Just under thirteen minutes, El Rocio just about steals the show. A clunky cinematic post-rock sprawl that would have been utterly lauded had it been included on Exploded Drawing.
The foreign baroque styles of Shapes arguably suit today’s landscape of music as opposed to 1997, which not only made Polvo an omnipotent force, but reaffirmed a band truly ahead of time.
Whilst perhaps somewhat blasphemous to suggest, Shapes is probably an album that has stood the test of time better than the likes of Today’s Active Lifestyles. There, it’s been said.
In Prism (2009)
Following Shapes and the decision to slam the breaks on the blistering freight train which saw six releases in as many years, the time that followed for members of Polvo consisted of sporadic creative involvement.
In 2000, Ash Bowie released an excellent album under his Libraness moniker, Yesterday …And Tomorrow’s Shells while providing assistance to indie-pop outfit, Fan Modine.
Along with starting a family, Brylawski also started a new project, releasing an equally brilliant self-titled album with his band, Black Taj where a second album followed in 2008, titled Beyonder.
While most bands in the mid ’00s were reuniting left, right and centre, Polvo weren’t immune to the growing trend, accepting an offer from All Tomorrow’s Parties, with an appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound following shortly after in 2008.
With new drummer Brian Quast behind the kit, Polvo followed-up their long-awaited return with one of the finest rock albums made since the turn of the century with In Prism.
Having worked with him on The Eclipse EP back in 1995, Brian Paulson was drafted back into the studio and the results proved to be yet another string to the bow.
While In Prism still possesses those frayed demented vistas of sound, both Polvo and Paulson captured a new distorted dimension. Essentially, it’s an album that is conducive to highway road-trips in solitude. Driving music with a razor-sharp edge.
Yet another ditty that consists of a very Polvo-like song title, the fever riddled Right the Relation kicks things off with a disjointed rhythm section and that signature guitar chime.
Lines such as “Consult the spider web for direction/Suddenly the news comes out to play/We look for beauty beyond imperfection.” and “The body leaves behind the spirit for dissection,” illustrated that Bowie‘s lyrics were once again a striking concern, renewing the band’s existential angst.
D.C. Trails follows, revealing the guise of a band truly reinvigorated with bursting-at-the-seams melodies, shadowy drones and motorik rhythms. A track that makes you feel truly alive.
The blind-siding ambience of City Birds has a Pink Floyd-on-anabolic-refreshments air about it. One would never have pinned the two in the same universe but here, the notion is at least plausible.
The one-two gut punch of Lucia and Dream Residue/Work are the undeniable centre pieces to In Prism consisting of glacial shifts in the Polvo pantheon of sound.
During both tracks, you could find yourself swimming in ether one minute only to then find yourself completely out of control and skidding over loose asphalt on route to the edge of a cliff the next. Fusions of Polvo‘s venomous math-rock jaunts and streamlined pop sensibilities giving birth to a new brand of turbulent jangle-rock.
Then there’s The Pedlar. Polvo showing their hand at being anthemic. More mind-bending juxtapositions of instrumentation packed in a short-sharp bursts to once again pulsate the senses.
A Link in the Chain closes In Prism and what a closer it is. Just under nine minutes, it’s a subtle psychedelic dream-rocker that almost lulls you to sleep.
And it would have been a fitting moment to call time on the band, particularly parting with a song containing lyrics such as “The fatigue on trying to close another door/That’s a feeling that I had before.”
Perhaps one of Bowie‘s finest lines yet.
Crystallising a beautiful madness that is rare in any art form, In Prism is by a distance the best reunion album made from any ’90s touchstone artists. Nothing else has laid a glove on it.
The announcement of a new Polvo album was in equal parts surprising and thrilling.
On the back of a successful tour, Polvo felt reinvigorated, creatively able and these coupling factors resulted in a follow-up entitled Siberia.
While there are no credits on who actually produced the album (in effect it was probably Polvo themselves), Paulson and Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Game Theory) each mixed four tracks from Siberia, which was recorded across North Carolina studios, Supraquanic and The Fidelitorium.
Following In Prism, Siberia continued the lustrous run of form, presenting itself as a sister album, with Bowie and Brylawski taking their tandem guitar shredding antics to another level.
Look no further then the glass shattering low-end bass shudders of opener, Total Immersion and Blues Is Lost. Two tracks that set out the stalls and completely frazzle the psyche.
Up until this point, Polvo swerved synths but on Light, Raking, the surprise emergence of this new languid element crawls from the vaults. A clear indications that Polvo were freeing the shackles and having some fun. Why not?
Album highlight, Water Wheel, is a worldly jaunt of math and post-rock inspired interplay, raging with vigour and verve with an easy-on-the-ear patina.
So too Some Songs, which contains jangle-pop bullion that the band discovered so prominently on In Prism. With the help of Easter at the mixing desk, a renowned purveyor of harnessing this world of sound, he provided a steady hand in shaping the final output of the album. A band combing the perimeters of conventionality.
A good friend of mine very well versed in the Polvo narrative described Siberia and In Prism as the perfect duo of Indian summer albums. It’s neither hard to argue nor make a more profound case.
Together, they solidified Polvo‘s standing as beacons of sonic inventiveness. Sprawling dissonance designed to make your bones shudder but also containing a ragged aloofness and delicate emotional depth that fellow ’90s tribal kinsmen such as Slint and Rodan also flaunted effortlessly. Bands that, during their own periods of activity, embarked on illuminating creative endeavours, revelling completely in their seclusion.
Polvo were always a part of this select few and Siberia was further proof of their worthy standing.
Whilst not official disbanded it’s hard to see Polvo making another record. With In Prism and Siberia, not to mention a timeless output of previous works, perhaps it’s time for others to take stock and see where things can go from here.
Dave Brylawski and Brian Quast continue to make music, having formed a new group, Silver Scrolls, who released their debut album, Music For Walks, last month.
Then there’s Bowie. There’s been talk of another Libraness album, but who knows?
In any case, the tremendous body-of-work Polvo have gifted their audience over the past three decades is more than enough to revisit and to celebrate in, aptly enough, a new dark age.