In Brief: A strong start for a promising synthpop act, in a genre where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out. Their reliance on vocal samples, bright pop hooks, and occasional more eerie/atmospheric passages to serve as a contrast, showcases diversity across this playful set of songs. But it also becomes apparent toward the end that there’s a bit of filler here – all pleasant ambient and instrumental stuff, but a bit lighter on the big, bright pop songs than I might have preferred.
Sometimes it’s fun to listen to a new band with absolutely zero context. Thanks to Wikipedia, and how I tend to get most of my music recommendations from fellow fans who will often go into depth about why they think I might like something, it’s a rare experience these days. But every now and then, I actually hear some music from a band without knowing much of anything about them. Polychrome is a band I recently had this experience with. The group (uh… duo? I’m not even clear on how many full-time members they have) makes unabashedly digital, sample-heavy, nostalgic, pop-friendly music that I guess I’d consider “synthpop”. That’s how they were described to me by the friend who got me into them (by way of the Blurescent: More Than Music compilation I mentioned in my January “What Am I Listening To?” column, which featured a number of obscure indie bands in that vein that pretty quickly grabbed my attention). Their big single “Synesthesia” might not have been the type of thing I’d immediately describe as a synthpop song, though – it certainly had its electronic/ambient elements, but also live piano and guitar that put it in more of a “dream pop” realm. The breathy female vocals certainly gave it a special sense of innocent and mystique, and of course I was intrigued by the title, and the lyrics which (as far as I could tell, at least) attempted to describe the experience of having that neurological condition. It was enough to make me want to hear more from the band, which since they’re pretty new, led me to their one and only album, also titled Polychrome, released in 2018. And for a band I’d never heard of before the beginning of this year, I sure have been playing the hell out of that record ever since then.
A review in which I give you no substantial information on the band wouldn’t be terribly helpful, though, so I’ll try not to keep you in the dark, although information on them at this stage is still a bit scant. Doing a little digging (which proved tricky due to a number of other bands with the same name and/or albums by that name) led me to their Facebook page, which has a short bio describing their style as “Synthwave” and “Neon Segawave”. Following them on Facebook gave way to a number of photo posts, probably ported over from Instagram, hashtagged to hell and back with a number of the different “wave” genres they use to describe their music that I can’t hope to keep track of, because as much as I enjoy electronic music, I’m not that great at telling one subgenre from the next. The occasional video or notification about a live gig revealed that they’re a duo from London (even though their Facebook page lists three members, without saying specifically what each one does), and they’ve got a budding fanbase in many parts of the world, ranging from random pockets of the U.S. to Eastern Europe. The band lists M83 among their influences (at least, that’s the one electronic band whose name I recognize), and I’d say that their configuration reminds me a bit of Chvrches, with lead singer Vicky Harrison upfront for most of the songs, while Oliver Price chimes in with a duet vocal here and there, The two voices contrast nicely with each other – hers is breathy and at times sounds a bit like she’s lost in a daydream, reminding me at times of indie bands such as Kye Kye who emphasize mood over clarity. His is more akin to the lower-register vocals heard in an Empire of the Sun song. The manipulation and repetition of Vicky’s voice often forms the main hook of a song, along with some slick drum programming and bright synth notes ping-ponging back and forth across your speakers. You’ve got to have a taste for chirpy, synth-heavy music to really appreciate this sort of thing (which I’ve honed over the years, despite insisting in my ignorant youth that I hated 80s music). But there’s enough variety to their sound that they don’t fall into the same trap as a lot of hopeful bands in their neck of the music world – just when you’re expecting wall-to-wall, upbeat, deliriously happy and lovey-dovey pop songs, they’ll take a left turn and perform a brief instrumental or ambient interlude, or bring a bit of analogue instrumentation into their digital world to spice things up a little.
That strength is also, unfortunately, a weakness. These eleven songs run less than 40 minutes combined, which is still an accomplishment for a new band likely working on a limited budget, but it gives the illusion of there being more content than there actually is. Polychrome has a knack for good songcraft, but I’d only describe just over half of these tracks as full-fledged songs, in the sense of having more to them vocally than just a repeated phrase or sample. I’m totally fine with instrumental and atmospheric bits having their place on an album like this – perhaps I’d never pick those pieces out as personal favorites on an M83 album, for example, but they’re important to the overall experience, as they often help to transition between different moods presented in the full-fledged songs. But this sort of thing tends to work best on longer albums where you know, from the sheer length of the track listing, that some of those cuts are simply connecting tissue. When I see 10 or 11 tracks on an album, I tend to expect pretty much all of them to be self-contained songs. I’m not knocking the quality of some of those shorter pieces, so much as the fact that it seems like more of a measure to disguise what probably should have been an EP as an LP. In the indie music world where record labels aren’t driving these decisions, that can be a bit baffling. But aside from one or two moments that feel overly repetitive or throwaway, it’s not something that bugs me too much during the listening experience – it’s more irksome when it’s over and I’m thinking about the overall substance of the album and what it’s trying to communicate.
As for “substance”, normally I’d say I get that from the lyrics of songs that actually have them. In Polychrome’s case, not having a physical release for this album as far as I can tell (or at least, not with distribution in the US), I had to go with iTunes in order to purchase their music, which means no lyric booklet. And the lyrics are nowhere online as far as I can tell. (I’ve gently nudged the band about this on Facebook, because I do genuinely want to understand what’s being said here. Thus far, no response.) So often, beyond the main hook of a song, it’s hard to formulate ideas about what it might be about, beyond the general impression that I get from the aural mood of it. That mood seems to mostly be one of confidence, romance, escapism, and wonder. Taking ownership of the music, not just as a frontwoman but also an arranger and producer, is a big deal for Vicky according to that brief Facebook bio, and Oliver, for his part, seems to play a strong supporting role without ever hogging the limelight. (What third member Stephen Hodd actually does, or whether he’s just a hired gun for touring purposes, I can only speculate at this point.) Whether the two are romantically involved, or it’s simply a professional partnership that brings out the best in each other, is not something I claim to know. But the vibe of two people who love each other very much, encouraging each other’s every little creative flight of fancy, permeates the record, right down to the cute little homage to a favorite TV show that closes the record. Given the time to expand their fanbase and build out a more immersive discography, I think they could achieve great things. And this modest but genuinely enjoyable start will be something they can still look back on with pride.
1. The Call
The opening track is definitely the album’s most immediate “Make you wanna get up and dance” sort of number. I’m absolutely in love with the cheery, stuttering vocal sample that repeats throughout – each time it hits, I feel like I’m racking up points in a vintage video game. The lyrics – what I understand of them anyway – seem to use gravity as a metaphor for being drawn to some sort of a calling that is bigger than oneself. The second verse contains this alluring turn of phrase: “No matter what you show to me/I’ll always need the mystery/Not quite deja vu/It makes the old brand new.” I’m not even sure what that calling is, but after hearing that, I’m like, “Sign me up!” While Vicky takes the lead here as she does on most tracks, Oliver’s backing vocals come in more noticeably at the bridge, which reminds me of the dynamic between Lauren Mayberry and Martin Doherty in some of Chvrches’ earlier stuff. This is a solid start all around.
2. Final Kiss
This upbeat and yet-trance like song sounds like it could be the lovechild of Flint Eastwood‘s “Monster” and M83’s “Midnight City”. The former resemblance is probably a coincidence, but I do feel like I’ve heard that same synth tone and bouncy chord progression from like three different artists within the last two years or so; it’s starting to get eerie. The M83 influence is obviously intentional, and I hear that mostly in the drum fills, and the kinda-zoned out vocal sample that repeats in lieu of a traditional chorus. Vicky’s vocals in general are so wispy on this song that it’s hard to make out a lot of the words, and with the lack of a strong vocal hook, that only really gives me the title to go in terms of guessing at a meaning. Due to this one never quite kicking into high gear, it does seem to run out of steam a bit in its last minute or so, but it’s still catchy enough to work as a follow-up single.
3. Dreaming About You
This is definitely the chirpiest, most lovey-dovey song on the album. (You’ve been warned!) The vocal pitch shifting sounds like little fairies, excitedly flitting about. For the first time, Oliver does more of a duet vocal, and I really enjoy how much the lyrics are built around the interplay between the two as they seem to confess that they’re still absolutely head over heels for each other. With that said, the contrast between their voices struck me as unintentionally humorous at first. The Aqua song “Barbie Girl” came to mind – I should note that this is not nearly as obnoxious, but the helium-laced female vocals and the much lower, flatter, almost whispered male vocals are startling when heard together, until you take a few listens to get used to it. It probably sounds like I’m making fun of this song – I’m really not. Actually it’s one of my favorites on the album, and I’ll admit it’s partially because of how wonderful of a wall of sound the band has put together, and partially because I think it’s awesome to be in a state where the person you’re dreaming about is actually the one you’re with in real life. If you still can’t stop thinking about that person even long after the dream has become real, I figure your relationship is in pretty good shape.
4. Fire Fly
This two-minute track is the first of a handful of instrumental interludes.
The slow opening with the electric guitar is a nice misdirect – it pretty soon cuts to a faster breakbeat with wordless (and probably heavily pitch-shifted) vocals from Vicky floating throughout. Then there’s a mellower bridge section that brings the guitar back, giving it a chance to play some meditative chords, before the faster pace and the fairy-dust vocals return. It’s a fun little jam that synthesizes the group’s electronic and indie rock influences, and that does what it needs to do in terms of setting up the next song, without belaboring the point.
While this one has a different rhythm and overall feel than the interlude that led into it, it also shows off a nice combo of programming with gentle guitar strumming. (And generous use of synth bass, which adds a lot of body to the mix.) It’s upbeat but fairly light-hearted and easygoing song.
“Fly away with me. Who needs gravity?” is the basic sentiment here – there are several songs on this album that allude to travel as a form of escapism and a breeding ground for romantic sentiments… and hey, I can’t argue, since road-tripping together has consistently been one of the highlights of the 13+ years I’ve been married thus far. I’m not sure what to call the little blasts of synth sound that come in during the bridge – the action verb that comes to mind there is “squirting”. I’m probably making it sound less cute than it is by saying that.
6. Waste Some Time
This is more of a mid-tempo track, the kind you chill out and nod your head to while you’re slowly cruising along the beach on a summer day. The programming here is absolutely badass. I love the more metallic, syncopated synths, and the minor key chord progression giving it a slightly darker undercurrent. This one’s another vocal trade-offs between Vicky and Oliver, and they both manage to keep my attention despite sounding half-asleep, probably because the song is meant to evoke a dream state. the lyrics are all about deliberately being in the moment with someone and not being in a hurry, perhaps watching a sunrise together, as suggested in the repeated lyric that shows up near the end: “I never noticed now/The sun rises, the sun will rise somehow.” The only thing that’s distracted here is their enunciation during the chorus. I’m guessing they’re singing “Can you waste some time?”, but it honestly sounds to me like “Jenny, waste some time”, and I keep getting hung up on wondering who the hell this “Jenny” is.
Despite that, this one’s perfect for those languid early mornings when you and the one you love just can’t quite bring yourselves to get out of bed.
7. Two of a Kind
Well, the filler had to show up sooner or later. It’s unfortunate that I feel this way about one of the longest tracks on the album – which at four and a half minutes, might not be saying a whole lot, but consider the fact that pretty much the entire song is a vocal repetition of the title, with no more effort made to expand on why these two individuals are two of a kind, and it gets old fast. The thing is, I love the repeating, robotic synth that runs through it. It’s got a memorable melody, and I like how it sputters and stops and starts as it goes through its verse/refrain structure. I wouldn’t even mind the vocals as a wordless accent, but once I get the impression that they’re actually saying something, and it’s just the same thing over and over, it annoys me in that Fatboy Slim sort of way.
8. Euphoria Borealis
An interlude following an interlude? Now they’re really stretching things.
This minute-and-a-half piece really reminds me of an M83 interlude – the title helps the sound of the ambient synths as they streak across the sky to evoke the sense of wonder one might feel upon emerging from a cave after some horrible apocalyptic event, seeing the Northern Lights at play far above, and knowing deep down that all will be well again someday. I wouldn’t have minded this minute-and-a-half piece after “Waste Some Time”. It would have fit well with that song’s sunrise motif. But in context of the album as a whole, it feels like they’re stretching things, and this piece is a bit orphaned – since nothing else on the record is like it, and it doesn’t last long enough to really demonstrate all that the band can do in the more ambient/meditative department.
The emotional centerpiece of the album is one of those hidden gems that I just love to discover in the world of electronic music – songs that seem exquisitely, meticulously crafted, yet clearly have human hearts beating behind the wall of sound. I’m this close to saying it’s a timeless masterpiece of the dream pop genre. I’m certainly enthralled by how the stillness of those tender piano notes, hitting like the first drops of rain at the beginning of the song, build so nicely to the euphoric outpouring of electric guitar, live drums (!) and deeply layered vocals in the pre-chorus. It’s like staring into the musical version of an infinity pool. The fact that it brings a lot of mental imagery to mind is appropriate, since as I mentioned earlier on, the song is about the phenomenon of seeing sounds, or feeling sights, or two distinct sense cross-pollinating in some way that the brain can’t perceive one without it triggering the other. It’s a beautiful idea for a song, describing the shared experience of two people realizing they experience the world in this way that no one else around them seems to understand… But then, I’m assuming a bit of meaning where I can’t quite understand what’s actually being sung. I have strained so hard to listen to the words in this one, and I can definitely make out a few here and there, such as the line “With your eyes I harmonize”, which tells me there are many more beautiful sentiments of that nature to be unearthed. But I almost feel like I’m hearing English as a language I’m not yet fluent in, because I honestly couldn’t hazard a guess at what half of this delicate vocal performance is trying to say. I’m not sure if that was a production choice, or if my hearing is truly starting to go from all these decades of indulging in music at loud volumes. Basically, I’m taking it on faith that the actual words to this song hold up to the experience I find myself having as I listen to it… which is a glorious one.
10. Leaving Earth
The synths and crackling rhythm to this one are rather… starry. They remind me of those scenes in sci-fi shows, when a starship goes to light speed and the stars go streaking past the window. And do I also hear DJ scratches here? That’s a sound that has certainly fallen out of fashion since oh, maybe the early 2000s. But it works here – it’s subtle, but adds to the atmosphere. From what I can gather of the lyrics, a picture is being painted of what life on Earth was like, coming from someone who used to live there and has to explain it to someone else. Vicky repeatedly urges the listener to “Close your eyes” and “Remember a world” with the beautiful sights she can now only describe from memory. This gives the song a sense of slightly sad nostalgia. Again, I wish I understood more. In a lot of these songs I have a pretty good handle on what the hook is saying, since it’s repeated, but in the rest of the song, the vocals are almost subsumed by the array of other wonderful sounds. The fade-out here might be my favorite ending of any track on the album, due to how the whole mix is slowly pared down to the simple finger-picking of an acoustic guitar. (You know what, I really wouldn’t mind hearing a stripped-down mix of this album that shed some light on how some of these songs were born from a simple set of guitar or piano chords.)
11. Don’t Be a Stranger
The album concludes on a darker synth instrumental that a lot of you listeners will probably recognize. That’s because it’s the theme from Stranger Things. because I don’t watch the show (and please everyone, for the love of God, STOP trying to get me into Stranger Things; it just isn’t my type of show!) I didn’t know this the first several times I listened to this album, so I was admittedly a bit fatigued that the band was ending on yet another lyrically minimal song that seemed to reiterate the same little musical motif over and over. Now that I understand they’ve actually added some words and vocal harmonies to an already compelling TV theme, I’ve got to give them credit for offering a different take on the whole “cover designed to go viral” that seemingly every indie band has to have to rack up streaming hits nowadays. The eerie, supernatural flavor of the show is captured nicely by the mysterious whispers and children’s voices heard in the background – these could be actual snippets of dialogue heard from the show, though I’m just guessing. As the repeating melody gets more buzzy and ominous over the course of two-and-a-half minutes before it finally sputters out, it feels like the listener is being welcomed into some sort of an eerie lost dimension, having fallen into a crack in the space-time continuum or something like that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Call $1.75
Final Kiss $1
Dreaming About You $1.50
Fire Fly $1
Waste Some Time $1.50
Two of a Kind $.50
Euphoria Borealis $.25
Leaving Earth $1.25
Don’t Be a Stranger $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: