A polymath, says good old Wikipedia, is someone whose “expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas—such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems”. So could that person be a band? Or could that problem be music? And was it solved?
Judging by 13th May at the Crofter’s Rights in Bristol, I’d have to say yes, though the musical answer is hard to interpret and begs more questions that it quells.
Normally the Crofter’s is just somewhere I walk past to get home. Its absence of a beer garden meaning the punters spill onto the pavement in big clusters of conversation sporadically stepping backwards, a minor inconvenience to navigate through, or more often, opt around among the sharp glass and grumpy traffic. A couple of bands later, it was nice to know that this sort of gig, actual bands doing strange, indulgent, and loud things, still happens nearby. It also showed me that the venue is not just an obstacle, but somewhere to enjoy and keep an eye on.
In the back room there was a giant disco ball, rotating, but sadly not lit. This disappointment did not last long due to the presence of Hoggs Bison soaking us in some pleasant, at times triple-metre waves of sound. This was a nice surprise which brought back early-waking memories of ArcTangent 2017 where I’d forgotten enjoying them play in the morning. Although the drums-bass-guitar-synth quartet worked as a perfect opener, their set was superb and could have been anywhere on the night’s bill. Their songs were generally in the post-rock territory in structure and sound, but the melodic sensibility of the more tropical sounding end of math rock. They showcased the new addition of synths with a polite yet meaty opening tune, and by the end of the set were into larger sounding territory.
Then between sets the organisers showed off a reasonable playlist over the speakers, featuring some Delta Sleep, some Rush, and Yes (the first time I’d heard them out in a pub): a nice reassuring hit.
Excuses really set things up nicely early on in the bill. Their broadly-influenced approach flittered pretty close to metal, but on the more groove-focussed end, with post-rock crescendo and shoe-gazing warmth. Several of their songs seem to have two endings, not in a bad way, rather a way that let the band members show off their musicianship, or give an extra chance to resolve some of the many dissonant and fuzzy themes thrown up by their songs’ towering structure. The way they’d bring up a section, then reiterate it in different rhythms, tones, speeds, and the constant tessellation of these sections, gave an almost classical layering of the song, firmly setting it in prog territory. On These Things Creep In, when the bassist chucked in a bit of slap-bass during a twangy break in the heavy shredding, I was sold. I particularly enjoyed the guitarist’s face when, rocking out, he poked his spine on the cymbal stand waiting behind him.
Deccan Traps, a powerful three piece based in Bristol, were almost too metal-sounding at times. For fans of that, there will be no complaints. They’ve an undeniably strong sound which hints toward the more drum-focussed end of math rock, lots of prog feel, and patient post-rock melodicism. Their penultimate song was most fun, with its playful and precise hi-hat beat leading through. Personally, their cleaner, less technical, and less rhythm-oriented parts of their songs, were arguably more enjoyable. Though to be fair maybe it’s the very contrast with the incredibly heavy that made their more original passages that bit sweeter. Either way the crowd was seemingly hypnotised, a steady head-bob on the post-rock waves and choppy palm muting. Scout Bleeder was a decent tune, and in a night of instrumental music, the only one that almost made me hallucinate some wailing vocals. They ended with a cold but pretty piece called Celestial Machines, where a nicely intertwining bit of guitar looping built the scene before scratching it out with ripping distortion.
With Poly-Math one of the first things you can’t help but notice is how busy, and how extreme, everything sounds. But there are nuances to Poly-Math too.
The crowd had somehow doubled by the time they took the stage. Their first song, among parts of the others, had a fairly Mars Volta resonance, both in the notes used and in the guitar tone, at times uncanny. I was reminded of this again with their spooky use of whispering voices, played forwards and backwards, and then later, when between songs the bassist Joe acknowledged pretence, then explaining the dual titles on their latest concept album, House of Knowledge / We Are The Devil. Each track has two different takes on its song names for your interpretation, each side of the record’s spine. Rather than a criticism, Poly-Math embraces the pretence, overcoming any detraction through the sheer intensity and skill in their sound. Even if you don’t like this music, most people will have to at least admit the unique sound, or at least some incredulity at being confronted by this bizarre structure, that was surprisingly created by humans.
The band openly state their strong Mars Volta and Yes influence. I could not hear the Yes influence as strongly as in their newer material, but there’s often the high sustain sear of busy guitar melody on tunes that are at times complex and overwhelming. The band’s playing reminds you that these are just influences, and the music certainly still makes its own path. Metamorphosis Pt 1, off the brilliant Reptiles EP, is exemplary of the band’s ability for journeys of precision on wayward schedules.
At times heavy, very technical, slightly industrial. At others there’s a more organic creepiness, dark and foreboding, such as the twisted, jazzy walking bass intro to Ink of Scholars/Blood of Tigris, meeting a speedy bebop drum beat. It was good to see the band really toying with this off the record in a live setting, emphasising the swing of the bassline’s walk. You can’t help but consider what exactly Poly-Math isn’t capable of.
There’s complexity and hypnotic heaviness, but gratefully there’s also loads of little rhythmic tricks that snap you away and makes you double-take. On the third song in the set, Medicine, these came in the form of rapid chromatic flurries, the rhythm stacking, reminiscent of the bumblebee ringtone on an old Nokia phone. During a hectic portion of Babel, the song stopped entirely, suddenly, for the drummer to give some count-in clicks, partly because it sounds good, partly as a chance for the band to reveal their taut confidence, enough to be able to interrupt their groove and rush back into it with ease.
The drumming was the strongest of the night, and Poly-Math were also showcasing the addition of live synth in this set. The guitar work was incredibly detailed and deserves the oft-misused title of ‘epic’, but it was bassist Joe Branton who was particularly good, the cherry on their darkly mafia look, and close to stealing the show. He wore the bass high up the strap and strutted about with blatant relish. I once heard an old adage that says the higher the bass is worn, the funkier the bassist. Whilst Poly-Math’s music is not overtly funky, there’s the reliance on rhythm and the dark groove that the band’s heaviness bore (hear four minutes in on Science/We Are The Devil). Technical and impressive, the band’s cohesiveness gave a towering monolithic sound. Explorative tonally as it is in structure, but backed up by an unbeatable heaviness. Mirroring their song structure’s sprawling ambition, is the scrawling detail of their intricate album artwork; which, I admit, normally shouldn’t come into relevance when discussing a band’s music, but it is nonetheless well worth a look at.
Basically, a quality evening of talented bands, all of which were, suitably to the form, a little intense for a daily listen. Though for prog fans, it really felt like a treat that this sort of things still happens, and there is some incredulity that it’s right near your doorstep. It’s enough to make you wonder how many carefully curated gigs you might have missed, before quickly dismissing your focus onto when the next one will be.