With the recent reunion of At the Drive-In, hopes have never been higher for a rekindling of the fire under the asses of Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala – a fire which produced the best prog rock albums of the 2000s. And given the rate at which Rodríguez-López currently produces LPs (about one a month for the past two years), it might not be long before there’s a new The Mars Volta album collecting saliva on turntables everywhere. But that doesn’t mean substitutes aren’t welcome. Poly-Math mix the erratic guitar playing and moody basslines of the prog greats with the punchy math rock that seems to sweat its way out of southern England these days. Piled with these riches and themes knicked from the last Gorguts release, House of Wisdom | We are the Devil makes for an enrapturing listen – when things go right.
And right they go from the top, as the band introduce their efforts in true Mars Volta fashion with a sound collage backed by a crackly recording of an adhan and murmured-documentary-sounding soundbites. Just like Pleiades’ Dust, this album draws inspiration from the history of Baghdad’s great library, the House of Wisdom, and it starts the story at the end. “1258 | In the Sights of Mesopotamia” splices passages that might have been pulled straight from The Bedlam in Goliath together with cascadian leads and electronic lurches a la The Physics House Band. It more than justifies its epic length in emotional scope, reaching the album’s most violent peaks and surveying its lowest lulls, reaching towards that languid glow of abstraction that emanates from the most strung-out of Mars Volta songs.
The worst the album has to offer comes not too late after, unfortunately. “Ink of Scholars | Blood of Tigris” proves a deft weaving of math rock in the vein of Talons with a powerful bassline, but the album faceplants with “Geography | Alamut/Sidh,” as a doped-up bond villain interviews a 13th-century Baghdad resident who sounds suspiciously like El Cuervo. It’s time to invoke Angry Metal Guy‘s double album flowchart: if your band isn’t named Caligula’s Horse, then no, you can’t have a spoken word track. Poly-Math return to form after this blunder, however, and perform commendably. The short burst of “Medicine | No Hell Like Home” calls to mind Grindstone-era Shining, but the band play their best on winding, progressive adventures like “Philosophy | Death and the Devil.” Whereas the usual cachet of the English math-rock three-piece is to crank out catchy, crisp tracks that dazzle for a few minutes and get off stage (see: Three Trapped Tigers, The Physics House Band), this band adheres to the Rodríguez-López tradition of interminable basslines and pedalboard agony.
It’s a device that should get old, yet never does. The first four Mars Volta albums were full of these drawn-out jams, and though they’re less fleshed out here, the combination of propulsion and wandering brings the best songs on House of Wisdom | We are the Devil around eventually. With the exception of “Geography | Alamut/Sidh,” nothing goes to waste. Closer “Science | We are the Devil” brandishes the band’s math-rock sensibilities with jostling time signatures, rude riffing, and tight percussion, keeping you on your toes to the last fade. Tom-heavy grooves and drawn-out chords whip up a suitably middle-Eastern atmosphere before the album’s last prolonged freakout.
Poly-Math delivers exactly what they promise, a full album near unmistakable from an Omar Rodríguez-López/The Physics House Band collaboration1, but with inspiration a world away from the expected. While the plucky three-piece can’t match the world-bending insanity of their greatest influence, they’ve found a sound that they can fit into and which will reap benefits for a long time to come. House of Wisdom | We are the Devil might not woo every prog fan, but the impressive musicianship and commendable influences that Poly-Math claim are reason enough for anyone to reach for the album.