By Edward Willoughby
The self-titled debut album from Manchester-based sextet Polar Institute, led by composer Rob Thorpe, beckons into the abyss of an icy, isolated soundscape that strides between classical chamber music and post-rock in a wonderful collision of contrasting yet complementary timbres. Built on cello, saxophone and voice, alongside piano, guitar and drums, there is a tightness to the aesthetic – it ventures into a myriad of textural possibilities, that effortlessly sit beside one another and co-mingle as these long-form songs take us to unexpected places.
More than a mere collection of songs, this album feels like a singular musical statement. There is a sense of sameness and unity within this album, as the songs bleed into each other like a stream of consciousness. The delineation of tracks feels more like a pause for contemplation, rather than a clean break in continuity; this album flows along in its singularity built around a sophisticated, restrained sound palette. Each song is like a wave lapping up against the shore; no two are the same, each colliding and rippling against each other. The chemistry between the players as the music ebbs and flows between free form and crystallization expresses things beyond words in a dualistic sense of intimacy and vastness.
From the moment this record begins with 62°36'S 60°30'W leading into Opening, we are swept away, gently, at first, with softly whirring winds mingling with wispy melodies blowing in the breeze – then tonalities emerge in piano octaves and strings in a spacious arrangement that slowly builds with e-bowed electric guitar. Soft cymbals and placid vocalizations coalesce, decorated with reedy trills as the singer’s voice rises up to breathy, joyful wailing. The musical motifs are passed around amongst the ensemble, riffing and improvising as the sound mass builds and decays. Just as the music comes to rest, a brief pause is sliced by a building climax, as the ensemble’s synergy kicks into full force before once again fading away.
By third track Pisagua we find ourselves fully immersed in this strangely familiar place, floating amongst gorgeous soaring cello, guitar textures and a touch of synthesizer swirling through. Then comes a jarring stab of the unfamiliar in alien, reverberant plucking sounds and a textural whir, led by a call and response between glockenspiel and saxophone. With effortless grace, the voice soars to operatic heights as the music swoops through peaks and valleys, building and developing with a sense of hard-hitting urgency and intensity with a driving, elemental force.
Following on from that heavy, percussive climax, The Great Circle Route offers a moment of repose, free and unmetered in a liquid timelessness; a lulling moment of gentle gracefulness in which the idea of selfhood is momentarily suspended in a sense of oneness with the music. As the ensemble swirls into motion, and time catches up with us once again, there is a lost sensibility of wandering and searching. We are once again thrust into drama led by a throaty, heavily bowed cello ostinato, a tense reedy melody from the saxophone, ramping up into percussive hits before the piano takes over the insistent repeating musical figure, joined once more by the other instruments building up to a frenzy.
Cetacea begins with a gorgeous moment for the piano and its healing vibrations, a warm sense of cocooning that circles in a vortex of saxophone and sparse decorations from the rest of the ensemble, growing in intensity. Like wading through water, the music oscillates between hope and hopelessness, taking tangential excursions to places of whimsy and wonder. The shining moment for the piano comes next with Ebb, where ripples of piano arpeggios sit against the vocalist’s breathy whispered hums, playing off the saxophone and cello as they chase each other around while the harmony builds. This track has a sense of epic timelessness, of openness and emptiness.
The shimmering piano arpeggio motif carries over into Vakna í Myrkri, which has a canonic, circular feel to it, building with each repetition. This track evokes a feeling of homecoming, coming back to the same place, but everything has changed and is no longer familiar. Berkner Island Fugue has an unsettling, foreign feeling to it, with its angular melodic leaps, taking tentative steps towards the unknown. This aimless meandering, gentle in its sparseness, sets the scene for a particularly exciting moment in the album, as we are hit with the surprise of a raw, grainy electronic rhythmic figure that feels distorted but very tight. As this track concludes, there is a sense that the daydream has come to an end.
The closing track Eulogy for Endurance seems to stand alone, almost as an epilogue for the album. Now awakened from the instrumental reverie, we are greeted with our first direct contact with something more human, in this a cappella vocal arrangement that very much sounds like a modern secular hymn. The soprano vocals chant in circling, intersecting harmonies, hinting to sacred music set to text, an incantation of the phrase “The walls without bricks; the roofs without tiles,” perhaps revealing some hidden secrets to the musical journey now behind us.
There is great power in the combination of instruments, and the tension they create between each other, yet they all magnetize together with the voice at the core, cutting deep and speaking to an instinctive mode of listening, in the complete absence of language. Each instrument speaks from its own perspective, joining together and building a beautifully devastating soundscape – and we are left in a state of silent awe and rumination.