Album Review: Polyphia - 'New Levels New Devils'

15 October 2018 | 2:03 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

New Riffs, New Licks.

More Polyphia More Polyphia

Polyphia established their name off the back of a shredding, whammy-fluttering, G# minor and pentatonic-scale-abusing instrumental prog sound. A style that catapulted them forward following the release of 2014's ridiculously catchy, shred-fest debut LP, 'Muse'. ('Finale' hasn't left my skull since I first heard it). However, on 'New Levels New Devils', they've channelled those usually hooky, chill-AF vibes into fresher, more daring wavelengths and have backed off the distortion too. Yet that’s not a bad thing. There's still the bright, flashy, whammy-bar-loving moments here, but more importantly, this new effort shoots the band’s progressive ideas infinitely further whilst still keeping you fully engaged. Whether you want new challenging parts to learn for your own repertoire, are craving originality in modern progressive music, or you just want deeper hooks to hum back to yourself, this latest LP has all of these aspects, and more, totally down pat. From the alternate and hybrid picking, wicked sense of groove, driving percussive flow, quickly tapped lines, contrastive chord progressions, to the great licks, legato runs and well-shaped solos; the good vibes are all breathing freely on album number #3.

While Polyphia's past sound hasn’t been completely eroded - it just simply remains in smaller doses - there’s a much grittier, darker and eclectic undercurrent running under the hood of 'New Levels New Devils'. Extremely well-produced by Y2K and Judge, this is a pretty experimental release, merging EDM and pop song formats, as well as trap and hip-hop elements in with the group's hyper-technical, progressive guitar acrobatics. And it does so strikingly well! “Instrumental trap metal”? “Progressive guitar-trap”? Call it whatever the hell you want, either way, it's sick! It's certainly breaking new-ground for Polyphia, a sound that's been slowly developing since the influences of ‘Renaissance’ (2016) and especiallyThe Most Hated’ EP (2017). Seeing them now display terrific growth in compositional skills, technique, and melodic structures. While not every song is an unforgettable, go-to banger, with one or two cuts that maybe could've been developed further ('Rich Kids'), the esteemed results overall speak for themselves.

And it's all in the name too: 'New Levels New Devils'. It’s this headier, jazzy mentality of wanting to play what’s in your head but not having it all come out like a jumbled mess. It's Polyphia aiming higher and really pushing themselves as artists and as musicians, whilst also taking head-on any challenges that come with such limitation bending. As such, there's just so much going on with these ten new songs. To say that there's a lot to take in would be the fuckin' understatement of the year! Even so, 'New Levels New Devils' feels truly original for the band, as well as being genuinely innovative for the genre they move within. Just you watch as countless other bands and YouTube guitarists try to emulate what Polyphia have created here over the next couple of years. And I'm telling you right now that half of 'em won't do it anywhere near as good as these four lads have done so here.

[caption id="attachment_1103730" align="aligncenter" width="760"] Polyphia, 2018. Gucci riffs are in season, fam. [/caption]

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Unsurprisingly, there are flurried riffs and slick licks all over the lush and detailed soundscapes of 'New Levels New Devils'. After all, this is Polyphia we're talking about: they don't do shit in half-measures. So, of course, there's plenty of lavish, show-off guitar work from guitarist Tim Henson to get yourself off with. But you know what? His performances here are awesome, lending so much flavour and class to the record's pacing and sound too. Fellow guitarist Scott LePage's talented output also compliments Tim incredibly well. From their melodic back-and-forths, octave changeups, chord voices, slapping, harmonies, to just trading their lead roles with one another. For real, the sheer harmonic ecstasy of this record is just brutally immense. Both of these guys - just as the band is as a whole - are really trying to improve and evolve, and it's paying off really well. If people pigeonholed Tim and Scott's playing beforehand, then they'll find it damned hard to do so now. As these dudes just laid the gauntlet down.

Of course, Polyphia hasn't been nor isn't currently about guitar wankery. Bassist Clay Gober has never been this on-point before; his slapping, slides, tone, and rapid runs have never sounded this good. For instance, the triplets on ‘G.O.A.T’? Gnarly! His delirious tone in 'O.D.'? Killer! He and his bass really have their own place in the spotlight now alongside the guitars and that's genuinely great to see. Drummer Clay Aeschliman (Clay #2) has performed some of his best fills since joining in 2016; they're just so busy yet delivered so effortlessly. You remember them too, they add to the song instead of taking away from the rest of the arrangements. On top of just having great foot and handwork, and his polyrhythms being well-implemented, Clay #2 also nails the trap and EDM moments behind the kit; nicely balancing the rhythms and dynamics you'd expect from either trap or prog. And god, his use of accents across this record is just so impressive! Both Clay’s lock-in together beautifully, and it’s clear that the pair just loving jamming these tracks out together. There's real chemistry and creativity in their rhythm section relationship. Couple that with Tim and Scott's virtuosic guitar antics, and you've got one of the tightest, most inspired sounding units in modern progressive music.

Although, one slight nitpick for some regarding this record - including myself - will be that it isn't really a "journey". What I mean by this is that there's no wider conceptual narrative at play here, like what you may expect from most other progressive groups. Instead, 'New Levels New Devils' is simply a collection of progressive songs; not a progressive album full of stories to traverse and deep-dive into. Still, the songs here bop, bump, djent, slap and just go bloody hard in general, so let's talk about them!

Album opener ‘Nasty’ sounds like the sort of music that plays when the evil boss of a video game finally arrives to kick your ass. The way track builds up over major and minor tonalities is well-crafted; acting as the perfect opener for this new era of Polyphia. And trust me, you’ll know when Jason Richardson’s (ex-Chelsea Grin, ex-All Shall Perish) feature part comes in. You can’t miss it, cause it's the part that sounds exactly like a scale-running Jason Richardson solo. Still, the guy has suitably fitted himself into Polyphia's new sound, and man, that clean-as-fuck shredding run from 3:38-4:10? So tasty, so nasty. Honestly, it's even one of my personal favourite passages I've ever heard from old mate JR.

A big trend of this record is how the songs are seemingly named after how they sound and what feelings they stir within you. Just as how 'Nasty' sounded filthy and well, nasty, so is the case for the playful 'Saucy'. Cause that's what it sounds like; a saucy, colourful, textured, and cheeky progressive guitar piece strutting it's stuff cooly. As cringey as it sounds, ‘Yas’ is exactly that too: a giant exclamation of "YES!". The bangin' tune takes the drier, darker sounding percussion and bass of its sibling tracks and injects them with the band's much-loved technicality and soaring melodies. The level of juxtaposition here is just nuts. Add in a few female vocalizations and CHON's Mario Camarena and Erick Hansel's highly emotional guitar work and you've got a great track on your hands.

Another huge win is 'So Strange'. This song's trap hi-hats and bass blow-outs sit nicely underneath the singing of Cuco, marking a real change-up for Polyphia's sound - vocals. Everyone rejoice, we can finally make actual jokes about lyrics in Polyphia songs! It’s a summer day, beach hang-out type of track, with quick sweeps and a lovely texture. It’s just pure fun; it’s just good vibes. The soothing cadences from Cuco add to that relaxed tone so well, whilst never feeling out of place on what is otherwise a solely instrumental listen.

For those who don't know, Mateus Asato loves to create these picturesque, reverie-like settings with his intricate guitar work. It's why his beautiful instrumental version of Crowded House's 'Don't Dream It's Over' caught so much attention back in 2016. Here on 'New Levels New Devils', Mateus's dreamy section merges so well with the surprisingly calmer playing of Polyphia during 'Drown'. This bonafide gem of a track seamlessly transitions from the skilled hands of Tim and Scott over to Mateus' own masterfully so. Which is something I must also give Polyphia themselves credit for: they haven't just asked these peer musicians to feature in these new songs willy-nilly. No, they've genuinely thought about which piece would suit which person and their style correctly; seemingly building up the compositions around that foundational thinking. Meaning that each featured section has real weight and feels like a proper change-over from the band to the guesting artist, and then back again.

This goes doubly so for 'Death Note' as well. (If you couldn't quite tell, this band loves anime and manga). This third track features lauded Japanese guitarist, Ichika, who brings his crystalline, heavenly and imaginative playing to much of the song, namely the intro and middle-eight. The whole track sounds like you're gliding right above the edge of an ocean; floating atop some grand, gorgeous expanse.

Across this album, creepier atmos and darker tones creep deeper into the album's framework, like on the groovier 'Bad'. But now we get the two biggest suspects of this new sound, the barn-burning duo of 'O.D.' and 'G.O.A.T.'. The reverse effects littered over ‘O.D.’  add to the song's foreboding tone, as does the darker chords, guitar flourishes and bombastic drumming. It's an over-the-top track, but one I adore. It's a new type of Polyphia hook and one I'm so excited about. The harmonic minors of ‘G.O.A.T.’, with the orchestral elements flirting in the background, is also such a refreshing sound. I can see how some won't take to it, as it's one big "solo" piece: intro, bass solo, guitar solo, drum solo, then the outro. Yet the band has the instrumental chops and tonal imagination to execute it stunning fashion. And not just for the wider record and for Polyphia's own music, but for progressive guitar music overall. 'G.O.A.T.' might not quite have the full gravitas as a closer, yet it's still one of the quartet's greatest accomplishments.

'New Levels New Devils' is a great record, plain and simple. Perhaps not an instant classic right now, but it has the potential to be a real game-changer in terms of what progressive music like this can achieve moving forward. I often hate that term - "game-changer" - as it's often just trotted out by stans and mates of the artists in question, blowing smoke up their ass as they just simply like the music created. But 'New Levels New Devils' could very well blow the doors right off the hinges for instrumental guitar-prog; proving that you can tastefully amalgamate trap, pop, EDM, and hip-hop elements into this style and have it work wonders. Just look at how Tim Henson started 'O.D'. and 'G.O.A.T'; taking inspiration from the chord progressions and beats of Kayne West's 'Champions' and Jayden Smith's 'Breakfast' respectively. Hopefully, Polyphia's peers and up-and-comers alike can really learn from the risks taken here and experiment deeper themselves. After all, both the listeners and the bands win with such experimentation and envelope-pushing. And look, if nothing else, this album unequivocally proves that Polyphia is continually expanding their sonic brush-strokes and improving their musical chops upon each new release. The sky really is the limit with this band, I swear.

1. Nasty (feat. Jason Richardson)

2. O.D.

3. Death Note (feat. Ichika)

4. Bad

5. Drown (feat. Mateus Asato)

6. Saucy

7. Yas (feat. Mario Camarena and Erick Hansel)

8. So Strange (feat. Cuco)

9. Rich Kids (feat. Yvette Young)

10. G.O.A.T.

'New Levels New Devils' is out now via Equal Vision Records. Read our interview with bassist Clay Gober here