Last updated on January 6, 2022
Diamonds are born from vast amounts of pressure. The pressure of being a talent from the Pacific Northwest may be the explosive element for many bands trying to find a form. “A caldera is the term for what’s left after a volcano erupts,” explains Polyrhythmics guitarist Ben Bloom. This is a precursor to the music found on Caldera, which is easily described as mind blowing. The band combines the talents of Ben Bloom (guitars), Grant Schroff (drums), Nathan Spicer (Keys), Lalo Bello (Percussion), Jason Gray (Bass), Scott Morning (Trumpet), Elijah Clark (Trombone), and Art Brown (Sax and Flute).
Polyrhythmics’ fourth release, Caldera, follows the success of Octagon. Here listeners are invited to take a trip musically around the world all at once, and to find substance from the unusual fluidity that is their music. Melding stylistic elements from jazz, blues, afrobeat, and funk with some rock flavor, the music from the Seattle-based band is an evolution. This album, written at the base of Mount Hood in rural Oregon, shows that the combination of all elements can create a unique form.
Fighting busy schedules, the band chose to get together and write at Stargazer Farms outside of Portland, Oregon. The result was being trapped in two feet of snow after the coldest winter snap in a while. Following the Stargazer writing sessions, the band headed into Gray’s Seattle studio and recorded nearly everything live as a band, just the way they’d been writing and experimenting out on the farm. The consensus that there was no way to capture the dynamic magic of live sound of a band of this size any other way than by doing it live.
An origami of musical beauty unfolds with each track of this twelve track masterpiece. It is an emotional journey from start to finish. It seems unfair to say one performance stands out or to focus on any one artist in the collective. Caldera is a multifaceted gem of a record that glimmers and shines with layers of musical beauty from all directions. The high-energy Polyrhythmics performance is a collection of world influences that each musician brings to the table.
Leading with the the smooth vibe of “Goldie’s Road,” a visceral connection is made. The easy flow is augmented by Brown’s flute coupling with Lalo Bello’s percussion. It is solidly followed by the sixties vibe of “Spider Wolf.” This song is a moment for Bloom’s guitar to start the conversation back and forth between the horns. “Marshmallow Man” is beautifully funky, starting off with an ethereal keyboard and grounded in solid horns that soar in, bringing a new shape to the song. Tight and precise, the song is magnificent in its formlessness. Capped off with a solo from the trumpet of Scott Morning that would make Louis Armstrong stop and listen, the tune is wrapped up with a stellar keys solo, thanks to Spicer.
The strange thing about Caldera is that many of the songs feel as if they are a reincarnation of something else. This most notably happens on “Au Jus” about half way through the album. With the solid framework and interconnection that has been built, the freedom to flow really takes place here. It creates a beast that defies containment. That animal who is Art Brown, and his saxophone rips into the heavens like Coleman Hawkins. Taking the horn section to that same place is “Lord Of The Fries” with its calypso beat of beauty. This is music of life, passionate and real with hips swaying in rhythm.
“Bowling Green” feels like laid back jazz, as alternating horns create a formless spiral of sound. “Dragon Lotion” finds true dance, blending afrobeat and Brazilian funk to push the limits on any expectations of what the music could be. The band pulls in some stellar keyboards from Spicer and is enveloped in guitar work from Bloom. Finding a piece of the heart of this album, “Journey To Caldera” is one of the best examples of the band’s songwriting collaboration. Each musician shines in their own moment, soaring into a moment that is classically understated brilliance.
“Vodka For My Goat” offers a taste of bass blended with guitar and sax into a drum-wrapped delight. Jason Gray’s bass stands out here. “Stargazer” is ethereal and all-encompassing; each piece of this musicianship is beyond description. To say that songwriting for Polyrhythmics has not always been a collaborative effort is hard to imagine. What makes Caldera pop for listeners is that it has been written collaboratively. Polyrhythmics limit the indefinable, connecting mind, body, and soul.–Lisa Whealy