Going from strength to strength in a very short amount of time and boasting some of the most exciting musicians to appear on the scene in a long time, Polyphia took to the stage of the Ritz in Manchester along with rapper/composer Johan Lenox.
Johan Lenox took to the stage first and it seemed to take a minute for people to come around to his set but once it clicked it was amazing. Johan had a piano for himself, two violinists and a guitar player that was presumably managing samples and electronic sounds. Johan is a rapper from Boston and that may sound like a strange act to have open for guitar-centred rock, it makes perfect sense opening for Polyphia and it made even more sense once Johan and his band showed off what they could do with their instruments.
The rap songs still had some catchy hooks but it’s the last 10 minutes of his set that was most interesting. It was an extended classical style arrangement he had written complete with violins and piano arrangements. It seemed to really win people over who weren’t impressed with his rap songs. There were so many moments of beautiful melodies and even moments of Serene connection with the audience in a way many people at the show didn’t believe possible in classical-style music.
It may take a minute for him to click with people but the sign of a truly exciting artist is the gut reaction and saying “There’s something here that I’m just not connecting with yet” and wanting to further investigate and find it. Expect to hear from Johan Lenox again, he’s a very interesting artist from the get-go.
Polyphia took to a very contained stage, their set was decorated with a very intense lighting set up which made movement fairly limited but that was to be expected considering they were about to play some of the most technically demanding music to come out in the past few years. They opened with two tracks from Remember You Will Die, the rich and opulent sounding Genesis and the mid-tempo twang of Neurotica, the latter of which had some jaw-dropping trade-off solos between Tim Hensen and Scott LaPage.
To the uninitiated, Polyphia is a bizarre band because they harness all their immense technical skill and manage to put on a show that feels sonically resonant to a hip-hop show with the guitar work imitating the vocal flow but it’s the energy at the live show that really helps push that over the edge. There’s an indescribable hip-hop attitude about it and that shines through on tracks like Goose and 40oz, the tight snappy drum work sounds almost identical to the record and it’s always complex enough to be impressive but never overbearing.
While Polyphia put on a fantastic show, a warning needs to be issued before getting a ticket; if you don’t know anything outside of Playing God, you’re likely going to have a miserable time. Prog has a tendency to become a mess of notes after a certain point and this is no exception.
There are so many amazing moments but after a while they become buried in over-the-top displays of technical proficiency that are for sure impressive but they lose their effect after a while. It’s definitely recommended you do your homework on Polyphia before going.
There are still great examples of songs that actually stand out against the guitar pornery like the somber harmonics on Drown and the bizarre sing-along guitar riff on Champagne, arguably the best display of the band’s talents as hook writers. There’s still crazy percussive guitar work but the complex guitar riff was still so easy to sing along to which may sound strange on paper but it works so well in a live setting and could be worth the ticket price alone.
Polyphia’s two biggest hits were played back to back: Playing God was the first and this song has never stopped being impressive. As someone who has never been able to grasp acoustic guitar in the same way as an electric. It’s mind-blowing to see a band with the ability to have such amazing control over their sound on an instrument that isn’t really as malleable as its electric counterpart. With a sharp cutting pick attack and harmonics that could break glass, it’s no wonder everyone is looking to Polyphia as the next guitar heroes as very few people could pull this kind of song off.
Polyphia returned after the encore with the “I’m him” anthem of the century, GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) and that’s an apt title. This song has such a grandiose swagger that it’s impossible not to feel jazzed to the eyeballs and hopefully, it’ll become a walkout song and a major boxing event in the future. In my opinion, it’s Polyphia’s best song, and there’s a case to be made for it being one of the best instrumental tracks of the past decade.
After an unexpected but welcome cover of 96 Bitter Beings by CKY, they blasted through Euphoria and ended their set to rapturous applause. Polyphia are certainly an acquired taste and aren’t really for casual listeners, it’s easy to get lost in their music and that may be the point but their show is proof that you should do a little bit of prep before going to a show. Sure, you’ll still be able to appreciate the musicianship and skill but it’s much harder to appreciate the songs when they’re so complex.
Words: Dale Unsworth
Photos: Izzy Clayton