POLAR SON – Wax/Wane

Formerly known as Porshyne, Brighton’s Polar Son know their way around a riff. On Porshyne’s 2017 EP ‘Environmental Music’, those riffs took an arty, sometimes heavy path, taking in elements of Oceansize, Tool and bits of Godsticks, beneath a vocal that sometimes shared a love of Thom Yorke’s grander moments. It was the kind of release that deserved to place the band among up and coming prog/prog metal acts. Unfortunately, despite champions in a few high places, any massive traction the band deserved was cut short by a global pandemic.

Following a time-out and name change, their 2023 full length ‘Wax/Wane’ doesn’t so much build upon their earlier musical influences but push them sideways, bending them into even artier shapes. The Tool influences – something that’s become rather too obvious and heavy handed with twenty first century prog metal bands – are largely gone, and in their place, Polar Son share even more adventurous arrangements. On ‘Listen’ in particular, there are huge swathes of jazz coming through its repetitive guitar line, before a rhythmic groove hints at world music, and a faint electronic pulse keeps a more modern heartbeat at the centre of the verse. Branching off into the chorus, atonal electronic drones underscore an obvious Thom Yorke-esque wail, which takes the pointed melody back into its groove-laden space. The hooks can be subtle, but there’s something about the way this track lurches back and forth between two disparate moods that feels genuinely exciting – certainly more so than a new work from yet another bunch of Tool obsessed riff-mongers.

More melodic, ‘Ends Up The Same’ at first works a jazzy rhythm beneath a clean, circular guitar part, sharing an art rock slant on an older prog-jazz sound. Their fondness for the jazzy interspersed with mellotron-esque drones hints at King Crimson, whilst a soaring vocal will, again, draw inevitable comparisons to Radiohead. The influences are there, but that’s not to say this band have blindly copied either act; they’ve merely just built upon a few key sounds in a very effective way. Their own unique style comes through in much bigger fashion during the first instrumental section of the number when busy drumming and pointed basslines battle beneath clanging, semi-atonal guitar. Following the re-introduction of a vocal, their strange, angular prog is further augmented by a pulsing beat, growing into a frenetic dance loop which drives a huge melody forward apace, whilst a repeated vocal refrain ensures something of a much bigger hook. Mixing elements of dark art rock, prog and deep electronica, this brings all of Polar Son’s chief influences together in one exceptionally tight arrangement.

The fact that the band have been able to grow so naturally is impressive, and never more so than on ‘Wax’. The first of the titular tracks smashes light industrial riffs and abrasive beats into something that sounds like the math rock of Wot Gorilla? meeting with a heavy bass-led alternative rock band. On the chunkier parts of this number, in particular, the rhythm section sound unstoppable. The bass tones immediately suggest something that’ll sound like a truck in the live set, whilst a malleable vocal melds itself easily to both the aggressive elements of the arrangement and its more typical art prog moments. ‘Wane’, meanwhile, slowly unfolds over six minutes, sharing warm bass sounds over rattling rhythms. The Radiohead love is still hugely obvious in places, but a world of synthesized strings, detached jazz guitar and floating melody keeps everything more interesting. It’s probably not deliberate, but there are even hints of the darker side of Marillion peeking through a couple of cracks, always hinting at bigger things to come. Eventually, the band crash their way into an impressively heavy slab of prog metal driven by a grinding bass and a hefty drum sound, but – in keeping with the rest of the record – they manage to avoid any Tool-ish cliches or old style metal shredding. Using their synths and deep tones to create a world of grandiosity that relies more on atmosphere than musical prowess, this is one of the album’s highlights, and with the vocal reaching something close to the album’s emotive peak, when played in tandem with ‘Wax’, it sounds even better.

‘Youth’ makes a bigger feature of their obvious love for Radiohead, but tempers a wavering vocal with a crushing prog metal riff. There’s a solid sound here, but it’s fair to say the album offers bigger thrills, not least of all from ‘Gangrene’, which mixes electronica with mellow grooves and haunting vocals, occasionally breaking away to introduce louder guitar chords. It has more of a desire to create atmosphere than deliver an obvious song, yet at the same time, the track slowly unravels in a way that’s constantly appealing, drawing in the listener gradually, until unveiling the album’s most dramatic shift. Exploding into a world of rather noisy jazz metal, the remainder of the number brings clattering drums, multi-layered riffs and brilliantly obtuse sax, on something that ends up sounding like Theo Travis jamming with Muse. It won’t be for everyone – that’s certainly a given – but those who can find a way in will love it.

Rounding out the album, ‘Interlude’ at first shares layers of atmospheric guitar, occasionally akin to something from the world of Daniel Lanois, but builds slowly into something that sounds like a more accessible take on something from Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’. Once the pieces all fit together, there’s a real joy to be had in hearing an arty vocal gliding over a jazz drum, showing how effortlessly Polar Son work their fusion based sound without the aid of a big riff, and ‘Supply’ aims for its polar opposite – no pun intended – as it weaves a slow, grinding guitar against hefty beats. This is the closest everything comes to reverting to the Tool-esque, but even here, the arrangement has a feel that’s a little different. The dark sludgy riffs that peek between the verses have a hint of the much-missed Awooga, and the more atonal moments venture deeper into a place that almost feels born of jazz improvisation. Whichever way you approach this, however, it’s clear that these guys can really play.

On ‘Wax/Wane’, Polar Son take Porshyne’s genre bending, prog-centric sound into new spaces, whilst still retaining a strong melodic core. In many ways, it’s just as much a “debut release” as an extension of the old band. It’s worth hearing for ‘Wax’, ‘Wane’ and ‘Ends Up The Same’, but there are no weak links on this album, and nothing that remotely sounds like filler. It’s progressive, but never prog; challenging, yet at the same time, oddly familiar. The more adventurous prog fan will certainly find something to enjoy here, and even if it doesn’t click instantly, a little patience will definitely uncover something very interesting in time.

November 2023