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Polyphia Shred Past History, Faces on Muse

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Could you name many “famous” guitar solos in modern metal if I asked you to make a list? You’d probably have an even harder time than usual coming up with a consensus. Before technicality in heavy music evolved into the pissing contest it’s become today, guitar solos could at least stand out. Nowadays, everything’s all been done; the Internet’s been scoured and harvested of every esoteric mode and torturously arthritic arpeggio known to man. Metal bands have responded by either accepting the futility of the tech rat-race, or by attempting to turn everything into a solo. On Muse, the debut album from Texan up-and-comers Polyphia, nearly every riff is twenty times flashier than any classic pièce de résistance, and none of its solos are likely to go down in metal history. That doesn’t mean, however, that Muse is a pile of mindless exhibitionism. Polyphia have crafted a surprising stability between wankery and tastefulness, and Muse is an album that’s worth a listen regardless of whether or not you care about the speed of the finger-waggling.

Polyphia like to use a lot of notes. Muse is dense with virtuosic tech, polyrhythmic grooves, and layers of arpeggiated electronics. But although their riffs are still the kind that’ll tickle the Sevenstring.org community, Polyphia have moved farther and farther away from metal over their brief lifespan. Their production’s lost a lot of its previous sterility, swapping hard-gated pedal notes for organic-sounding guitar embellishments. Blast beats are absent, and the band’s hooks are no longer anchored by grumbling open strings. Instead, the tracks flow via whimsical mid-rangey riffs, like the aptly-named “Champagne,” whose effusive, bubbling slides guide the song through a matrix of liquid contours. Brandon Burkhalter (drums) and Clay Gober (bass) are just as ecstatic players as the guitarists when they get a chance to shine. The album sits somewhere midway between the jazzy fretboard wizardy of Guthrie Govan, the sculpted fusion of Exivious, and the spunky punch of Intervals; it’s a unique mix.

Muse might initially inspire skepticism. Its two primary constituents are shred and disgustingly catchy hooks, and it’s saturated with that characteristic upbeat affect that Vince recently dubbed “Satrianicore.” It normally takes a specific set and setting to inspire an extreme metal fan like yours truly to listen at length to all this damn positivity, but Muse is a grower: once I found the right mindset with which to approach it, Muse convinced me both of its worth in multiple different contexts and outside its niche. A lack of narrative cohesion is the Achilles heel for a lot of instrumental bands, but Polyphia have dynamic flow down to a science within individual songs. Muse leans on memorable, tightly wound themes, like the melodic oscillations of “Hourglass,” manipulating repetition like a tool instead of leaning on it as a crutch. Polyphia don’t fall prey to the other extreme, either. Muse easily could have ended up sounding like Chris Letchford and the 15 payments of just $19.99. Polyphia allow themselves flexibility, too — the band often sounds the best when they’re doing what they’re not necessarily most familiar with. The winding whammy bar shenanigans of “87” are more compelling than its soloing, as are the knotty harmonies that bounce around like pinballs throughout “Finale.”

Still, the band haven’t quite succeeded in articulating their ideas over the broader course of a full-length. You can tell when  Muse gets a little one-dimensional: it’s hard to believe that there’s much more to “Sweet Tea” or “James Franco” than a handful of cool riffs. Polyphia’s prog is grounded in the style of its riffs more than it is on song structures or overarching concepts. Muse is still a collection of single-length songs with lead lines emphasized over established repeating sections. When listened to as a whole instead of track-by-track, the solos (and the songs) begin to blur; it’s blatantly clear how ridiculous Tim Henson and Scott LePage are at guitar by the first few tracks. After that, their shred-fests start teetering precariously between soulful expression and lifeless technical demonstration. The solos don’t detriment the songs, but they do stop enhancing them.

Ultimately the few issues Muse does run into are those same ones that many of Polyphia’s more experienced peers still have yet to solve. Making instrumental music that stays intriguing without spilling over into wankery is hard, and the conviction in Polyphia’s execution makes their songs awe-inspiring no matter what. For a debut release by a band of kids who can’t all legally order a beer yet, can you really do better? In a world full of people playing fast as hell, it’s a pleasure to come across a band that can do it with this much style.

Muse will be self-released by the band on September 2. Preorder packages are available here

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