BY OLIVER KOGOD//
My most recent musical obsession is Polvo, a North Carolina indie math rock band, active in the 1990s-2000s. Instead of me unsuccessfully trying to describe their sound, this is the blurb that can be found on the group’s Bandcamp page:
“One of the most popular and accomplished bands in the arty, noisy rock genre, Polvo revels in dissonant, intricately layered guitars that often employed alternate tunings; odd, off-kilter rhythms; an emphasis on dense sonic texture; and unorthodox song structures that, nonetheless, are often unconventionally melodic.”
Rather than reviewing an album of theirs, suggesting songs to listen to, or giving a history of the band, I will focus on a theme of Polvo’s that I have noticed. Polvo, unlike most rock groups, uses intentional randomness to craft compelling songs.
Intentional randomness is definitely a contradiction. It doesn’t really make sense since something random shouldn’t be deliberate. Yet, Polvo finds a way to bask in the contradiction of it.
I first thought about this idea when doing some online stalking (also known as “research”) about the band. Under the comments section of a Youtube video I was watching, one fan remarked something about how they saw Polvo live back in 96 and went up to Ash Bowie [guitarist and singer] after the show and told him “I like your guitar.” According to the comment, Bowie simply responded with “I like butterflies.” The somewhat awkward randomness of this exchange embodies the intentional and interactive randomness (and the contradictions) of Polvo’s music.
The song “Channel Changer” off of 1992’s Cor-Crane Secret is an example of the randomness. Sections of the track sound hauntingly poppy. The tunefulness of those parts heavily contrasts with the noisy, tense other sections. It feels like the melodiousness maybe shouldn’t be there… but the listener wants it to be.
In addition to the sonic randomness of “Channel Changer,” Polvo explores randomness with song structure. Take the track “Dream Residue/Work” (from In Prism, 2009), for instance. The trippy lack of repetition of it makes it sound more like a story than a song. For most music listeners, a song structure this weird may seem random, but we need to remember that the art is intentional.
In an online article about Polvo, Simon Kirk writes that “Polvo were very much world builders.” I agree with Kirk’s point. I would further it to add that Polvo made a world like one we’ve never seen before. To us it appears and sounds random, but that is because we are not used to it. Their world building, like all world building, is intentional. And what makes it fun to listeners outside that world is its randomness.