• Polvo
  • Can I Ride EP7 (Kitchen Puff) 1991 
  • Cor-Crane Secret (Merge) 1992 
  • Today's Active Lifestyles (Merge) 1993 
  • Celebrate the New Dark Age (Merge) 1994 
  • This Eclipse EP (Merge) 1995 
  • Exploded Drawing (Touch and Go) 1996 
  • Shapes (Touch and Go) 1997 

Practitioners of a particularly slide-rule-dependent brand of modern-day prog-rock, this North Carolinian quartet — whose name is “dust” in Spanish — can, depending on one’s point of view, hypnotize or anaesthetize. Polvo’s lengthy, enigmatic songs have far more in common with Gentle Giant and ELP (on a budget, of course) than anything contemporary, and its disavowal of hooks is all but complete. Of course, to tech-heads and those of a cerebral orientation, those traits are nothing to grouse about.

After a self-released double 7-inch, the Chapel Hill denizens recorded Cor-Crane Secret, a debut that quickly laid down the clinical gauntlet. The opening “Vibracobra” buries a provocative, vaguely Middle Eastern guitar line beneath an oscillating storm of chord changes; “Kalgon” simply removes the former element, leaving guitarists Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski to see-saw madly without progressing so much as an inch. Bowie’s unsteady vocals are generally submerged, but the unusually clear-cut “Can I Ride” reveals that decision to be a good one.

Today’s Active Lifestyles furthers Polvo’s search for the lost chord, and you have to give the band credit for running through just about every permutation a fretboard has to offer. Trouble is, the arrangements seem almost random. “Thermal Treasure” splinters under the pressure applied by its stop-start structure. Placed in the pole position, the evidently angry song (mutterings about the misdeeds of some unnamed “motherfucker” are occasionally audible) sets the album’s tone. The detuned and woozy “Lazy Comet” has some seductive powers, but the band’s overweening interest in flexing its instrumental muscle soon breaks the spell.

The energy level is a bit higher on the seven-song Celebrate the New Dark Age, but Bowie and Brylawski still noodle with virtually absolute tunnel vision. The fact that both concentrate on fractured chord disseminations (“progressions” is a bit too linear a description) rather than offer up any tangible leads can create a sort of eustachial whiplash, as evinced by the ornate “Fractured (Like Chandeliers).” The band is beginning to show flashes of proficiency at structuring songs, however. The throbbing “City Spirit” pushes Steve Popson’s bass to the fore, underscoring the tension between Bowie’s watery vocal and Eastern guitar tone. That a similarly Asian tone imbues “Solitary Set” and “Old Lystra” is more consistency than one usually expects from these guys. (The mini-album was issued, besides CD and cassette, as a double 7-inch.)

With Bowie moonlighting on bass in Helium, the five-song This Eclipse reclaims form(lessness) to a large degree, but benefits from the clearest production — by Brian Paulson — Polvo has ever received. The separation afforded the guitarists’ never-twining parts lends some logic to “Batradar” and “Titanup,” but it’s hard not to ruminate about what the band might be capable of if someone made them walk a straight line just once.

No such intercession is forthcoming on the sprawling Exploded Drawing, but Polvo does make a few minor modifications to its sound — such as parting the sonic curtain enough to allow Eddie Watkins’ tom-tom-heavy drumming to carry songs like “Fast Canoe.” But even though Polvo has grown more adept at translating its work for the mathematically impaired, the band’s guitar calculus hasn’t acquired the slightest degree of warmth.

[Deborah Sprague]

See also: Helium