For a genre like progressive rock, with a name that would heavily imply pushing itself forward into new, unexplored territory, it really seems to have stagnated lately. Band like Rush and Dream Theater might still be around to make expansive, excessively long-winded marvels and tech-metal continues to thrive at modern metal’s forefront, but the former are really relying on the past to drive them along, and the latter has become so saturated that barely anyone is moving anywhere. There are exceptions, of course, but progressive rock has ultimately fallen into a vicious cycle in which progression is substituted for stagnant technicality. So therefore, when a band like CHON comes around to release Homey, in which prog and math-rock rubbed shoulders with pop and house to dizzying effect, it’s probably the most progressive that any band under this nebulous banner has felt in some time. It’s something that Polyphia have definitely taken onboard as well, and while they, CHON and other bands in their circles have delivered more intricate, wiry takes on the genre for a while now, the floodgates being well and truly nonexistent now means that labeling New Levels New Devils as “progressive rock-meets-trap” is fully acceptable.
Actually going into this album though, it can sometimes feel like Polyphia are using that pull quote for leverage that the music itself doesn’t quite deliver. Going back to CHON once more, what made Homey so compelling was the distance placed between the math-rock material and its electronically-driven counterparts, and how that crisper balance felt more clearly defined; with Polyphia, a better job is done at blending the two sounds, but it can make New Levels New Devils run together considerably. The only song that truly stands out is So Strange, and that’s only because Cuco’s muted vocal contributions are the only ones on the album, and his overall lack of range or expressiveness don’t exactly render that as a positive. Otherwise, it becomes incredibly easy to pick up on Polyphia’s formula from basically the first track onwards – a foundational trap beat that forces the technically dazzling guitar work into more acute angles, with occasionally a guest musician like Born Of Osiris / All Shall Perish’s Jason Richardson or Covet’s Yvette Young to contribute another synapse-frazzling guitar line that assimilates with little struggle.
Admittedly, it does get formulaic, but the sheer technical illustriousness coupled with that fact that, at the end of the day, this is Polyphia’s own formula ultimately means that New Levels New Devils can’t be chastised to harshly. That’s partly down to the fact that it’s a better fit within trap than traditional prog, relying on vibe and motion to get by that shows the main advantage of being an instrumental band in this context. As such, it leaves the jerky, segmented grooves of OD and Yas in a good position that prioritises mood over depth, and it’s honestly astounding how these seemingly never-ending spirals of tight, polished guitars can integrate with the more curt trap beats, especially when that geed-up mood is somewhat at odds with where the genre typically goes, but feels natural all the same. It certainly helps that there’s barely a moment on this album where the playing is less than second-to-none, and placing that in a noticeable first place to the beats and hip-hop flows is ultimately what keeps that momentum going; for the difficulty they have at crafting individual, moment-to-moment hits, the lengths that Polyphia have gone to ensure this isn’t a boring listen deserves appreciation.
Of course, that would be easier if this did incorporate the hit-making craftsmanship of trap as more than just a basis, but for everything else that Polyphia do right and the technicality they’ve managed to pack into this album, it’s still very much possible. And besides, that’s the trade-off when it comes to a genre making noticeable steps to overhaul and progress its sound, and for what can ultimately be deemed a foundation for prog’s headlong advancement into the 21st century, New Levels New Devils sets down the groundwork that already has plenty of strength. It’s rarely clunky or uninteresting, and with a bit more time for soundclash to gestate, prog and trap could make for a thoroughly modern sound where the potential is almost limitless.
For fans of: CHON, Intervals, Covet
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘New Levels New Devils’ by Polyphia is released on 12th October on Rude Records.