Polar Bear have earned a reputation as one of the most creative acts on the UK music scene, a status rewarded when they were nominated as one of the finalists in the 2005 Mercury Prize. Their raw-boned, dramatic music mixes jazz with an electronic soundscape and a punk sensibility, underpinned by break-beat and rock rhythms. Combined with their compelling contrapuntal melodies and driving energy it's a sound that has already won them critical acclaim and a devoted audience - and now they release their highly anticipated first new album for three years.
Drummer and bandleader Sebastian Rochford is as likely to listen to Bjork, Devendra Banhart, Beethoven and Pig Destroyer as he is to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Alongside Sebastian Rochford, Polar Bear is Pete Wareham (tenor sax), Mark Lockheart (tenor sax) and Tom Herbert (bass) Leafcutter John (electronics). Sebastian Rochford won the 'Rising Star' award at the 2004 BBC Jazz Awards. He also leads Fulborn Teversham and is a member of Acoustic Ladyland and alt-rock band Menlo Park.
It's now three years on from Polar Bear's last album, Held On The Tips Of Fingers. It's not surprising that it's taken the band a while to get back in the studio and put something substantial together. The shock-headed and ubiquitous Seb Rochford has been working on so much stuff in the last couple of years in and out of the F-IRE collective, that we should be grateful that he had the time to return to this fabulous combo. The self-titled third album is a triumph.
This time around, rather than Rochford and bassist, Tom Herbert, being the lynchpins, it's been left to the drifting lo-fi tenor sax combo of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart to lead us into the Bear's world of vaguely dubby, glitchy, but always groovesome post-jazz. But this isn't to say that the bass doesn't hold the centre like the biggest, most dependable hitching post you could care to tether your improv horse to. There's rather more of a slinky Carribbean aspect to the mix now, like Sonny Rollins fed through Supercollider. Opener, Tay, shimmies into the room riding on Herbert's bass, and Tomlovesalicelovestom is a spry skip through the most charming tune they've yet written. Leafcutter John's contributions are never overly pushy, though on this number he uses squeaks and squalls to dot the track with Clanger-like noises. If the Alice referred to is Coltrane, she'd approve of the cosmic bufoonery, I'm sure. Meanwhile Voices finds the band in pure digital land, filled up with chiming itchy bells and Industry is a crawl through breathy melancholy and exclamation. Like another track, It Snows Again, there's a gradual bulid up of tension that speaks volumes about the way in which they approach their work these days.
For a band who could, at the drop of a hat, shred wallpaper if they so desired, Polar Bear is a surprisingly restrained affair, but that's no disappointment. Rather, the tunes and grooves contained herein speak of maturity, consideration and a great sense of just when to get weird on our collective asses.
The second track (perversely titled Goodbye) breaks into a space invaders-in-Birdland place halfway through, but always the theme's nailed again before the closing two minutes of post-Soft Machine repeat and drone electronica. Equally perversely named, Joy Jones, ends it all with beautifully funereal dissonance. It's a wonderfully liberating sense of release and control in even measure that makes Polar Bear such a fine record. Welcome back, boys... --Chris Jones
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