You can call Polvo math rock, but the numbers just don't add up
In all of its potential for presenting flawed and misleading information, Wikipedia pretty much hits the mark when it comes to math rock. The oft-vilified source for universal information calls the genre "a rhythmically complex, guitar-based style of experimental rock music ... characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), angular melodies, and dissonant chords."
That sounds about right. And it's pretty much the same string of adjectives that most respectable journalists have been rearranging for years when trying to describe the sound. But the legitimate media harbors a somewhat skewed perception of North Carolina's accidental math rock foursome Polvo.
Throughout the '90s, the Chapel Hill-based group seemed like just another math rock band. Their albums were good, earnest and distinctive; but not the stuff of legend. At least they didn't seem so at the time. They were akin to the musical legacy kicked off by Slint in Louisville, Kentucky in the late '80s, which came to a head with Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records scene that dominated indie rock real estate during the Clinton years.
It's hard to see the forest for the trees, but hindsight isn't always 20/20. If Polvo was counted among math rock's upper-echelon during their heyday, time has been even kinder to them.
"When all the press started coming back, people were saying things about how Polvo were the founders of math rock, and I think that's insulting to people who play really good math rock," laughs bassist Steve Popson. "We never thought of it like that."
The band called it quits in '98, leaving behind a handful of singles, EPs and albums filled with experimental songwriting, drones and Asian inflections that colored their tonal palette on Merge and Touch & Go Records. They were by no means the technically proficient machine that is Don Caballero or fellow North Carolinians Seam, but the strange organization and catharsis that guided albums such as their quintessential '96 double LP Exploded Drawing were indeed influenced by the times.
After ten years down, Polvo has returned. And with them comes a flurry of bold praise that has canonized the group. Following a string of recent reunion shows, journalists have christened Polvo an innovator of math rock. Some have even called them an originator of the sound.
As Polvo, Popson, along with singer/guitarist Ash Bowie, guitarist Dave Brylawski and drummer Eddie Watkins became the pride of indie rock in their home state. Pick up virtually any of their releases and their songs capture the mood and sound of the era. But rather then ride the wave of a popular trend, Polvo delved into areas of more abstract sonic terrain.
Songs such as "Thermal Treasure" or "My Kimono" from their '93 album, Today's Active Lifestyle, or virtually any moment from Exploded Drawing, are filled with unique melodies, dissonance and warped arrangements. But all of these pieces come together under an umbrella of haphazard emotions and a ramshackle pace. Amidst it all, there is always a solid, underlying hook. And if math rock lost sight of anything as it evolved, it was the ability to craft catchy, pop hooks.
"One of the hardest things to do as a songwriter is create really good, simple songs," Popson adds. "It was never Polvo's intention to make a song complicated just for the sake of it. We wrote songs that came to us – as songwriters and musicians – as they did, and we worked around them as naturally as possible."
Ascribing the math rock title to Polvo's sound is subjective – nothing that can be factually flubbed in a Wikipedia entry. They are as mathy as listeners want them to be, and therein lies their ability to transcend both time and trend.