Forming in 2010, Polyphia have firmly made their mark as an instrumental band that gather inspiration from outside their assumed genre lines. Continuing to not ‘stay in their lane’ at all, their third full length release has Polyphia combine forces with hip hop and electronic producers Y2K and Judge.
As a phrase, “New levels, new devils” comes across like this decade’s version of “Mo money, mo problems” that seeped through 90s hip hop music and culture. And as an album title, New Levels New Devils reflects the rise that the Texas based four piece are on, chock full of hip hop influences.
My disclaimer to this review is that I’m coming in relatively blind; to the inspirations or intentions behind the album, to Polyphia as a band, as well as to the genre in general. Neither a regular listener/fan of instrumental music, nor hip hop, I found it strangely easy to jump on the Polyphia hype train with the release of stunning singles like “G.O.A.T.” and “O.D.”. It wasn’t hard to see that there was something unique going on with the four piece of Tim Henson (guitar), Scott LePage (guitar), Clay Gober (bass), and Clay Aeschliman (drums).
“This album is probably the best music in the history of music. Between all the future grammy nominations and public praise it’s pretty unanimous that we’re the biggest (and best) band in the world at this point. Far better than Metallica, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, etc.” – Polyphia
Music aside, Polyphia haven’t been shy when it comes to raving about their own band. While it could come across as egotistical or a joke, I’m seeing the bravado as relevant to the hip hop element that bleeds through the new music in particular. Gucci slides, ass tatts, promotional photos with poses on motorbikes and a Mercedes Benz: None of this is what we’re used to seeing in metal, instrumental or otherwise. But whatever! Polyphia are looking like they’re having a good time and feeling pretty comfortable in their New Levels New Devils era and its aesthetic, in comparison to earlier takes.
Onto the music. New Levels New Devils opens with “Nasty” which includes a feature from Jason Richardson. Slick and sassy while relatively sedate, the grandeur of bass and rhythmic drum taps, and electronic samples adds to this ever growing layer cake of sound. The drop pulls us into spangled rhythmic grooves with both flare and alarm.
Becoming more dense and intricate, a brief moment of silence heralds a distinctly bending section, before we’re taken back out into ‘prettier’ flare; an addictive and bouncing melody, creating something relatively chilled, which sets the stage for Jason. Razor sharpness of Jason’s guitar work coupled with sedate drums, smooth and urging bass, and delicate piano flourishes feel like a momentary handing of the baton. Until the drums insist Polyphia’s return and Jason and Clay A. all but have a ‘music-off’.
It’s hard to find where the track hits its actual peak, because a frenetic stepping down coupled with piano and a familiar groove keeps the energy high until the very end. Maybe just lose yourself in the instrumental-gasm. We’re sent off with a cheeky melody and a synth sparkle.
If we were feeling chilled from “Nasty”, “O.D.” then slaps us in the face with brash intricacy, inspiring a slack-jawed ‘what the fuck is happening’ attempt to take this instant drop into Riff City. It’s easier just to lean back and ride the very addictive bass line that dances with the assertive riffs. Falling down into something darker and feeling more smooth than aggressive, it’s a tumbling downward slide, accented by punchier circling and climbing tension. Animal calls return us to more familiar ground, and I can’t help feel that Polyphia are having a really good time with this. What’s also noticeable as I soak up this multi-layered instrumental feast (and the hyping drum build up/climbing riffs that drops into That Riff again) is the shared focus across the entire band.
On this video Tim shared that “O.D.” was one of the first tracks created for New Levels New Devils, sparking from an idea he had ‘way way back’. He loved the chord progression of Kanye West‘s “Champions” and worked it into what we hear, keeping it interesting to the ear as well as enjoyable. He had Y2K and Judge partner on production. A trap-tastic ending sees us out of “O.D.”, and New Levels New Devils rolls on, already delicious in this appetiser phase.
Stunningly clean and all-surrounding is how third track “Death Note” instantly feels, featuring Japanese guitarist Ichika. This echoing fullness takes on a dream like suspension, which we’re soon pulled out of into present day with more intertwining rhythmic riffs and multi-angled complexity.
For my ears, the crystalline moments were the most curiosity-sparking, and I became easily lost in the rest of the track with the more traditional progressive metal sound. Though musically impressive, I found I needed the accents of effects (such as the “hey!” samples) to keep me focused. In this steadily unfolding piece of music, I also missed the ‘gotta keep up’ vibe of the singles, which really seems to fit Polyphia well. Side note: The track’s title had me wonder about the song inspiration.
I liked “Bad” within a few seconds, and I appreciated the sense of creative freedom showing up here that shines beyond traditional progressive metal. Finger acrobatics open the song while bass and beats lay an easy groove. But the easy-ness doesn’t stay predictably solid for long and we’re forced to just follow wherever we’re led. There’s a lot going on and stuttered rhythms have the listener feel like they’re putty in Polyphia’s hands. It’s for this reason I couldn’t really find anything solidly distinct to hook into.
With pockets of repeated riffs I found more ease. “Bad” is experimental to the max, like a multi-coloured interdimensional trip where you’ve no idea what’s going on, things keep constantly changing, but in the meanwhile it feels warm and fuzzy. Shoutout to some very cool zorby/horn sounds or samples that made me want to listen to Apashe‘s Copter Boy again.
Brazilian guitarist Mateus Asato joins Polyphia on “Drown”. This is a prettier and lighter piece of music, featuring female voice samples and a dreamy looped riff. Staunch bass gives weight and grounding throughout, where ethereal curiosity marries melodic intensity. A butterfly flight and a call-and-response feel takes us into the feature, where Mateus’ guitar ‘voice’ is emotively yearning in this otherwise emotionally light adventure. Unlike “Bad”, “Drown”‘s butterfly of a riff has hooks on its feet and easily sinks into the psyche. As we sonically ‘drown’ at a muffled ending, it’s done freely and easily, (again) really making me want to know the inspiration behind the track and its title.
And speaking of hooks, “Saucy” is full to the brim. An addictive riff is met by a definitely ‘saucy’ bass groove. Surrendering to the fun of this track, there’s momentary stops of more slender and shining guitar work and bass breakouts, before returning to that hot sauce blend. Tracks with repeated melodies throughout work well for Polyphia, where they can still creatively veer off into sonic wonderlands, yet return to the persisting thread. This combination creates a factor of impressiveness as well as the head-dwelling ‘I want to listen to that again’ factor. It’s a showcase of the Polyphia prowess as well as being easy to appreciate even if all the instrumental fantasia goes way over your head.
On the very cool (third single) “Yas”, Mario Camarena and Erick Hansel of CHON join forces with Polyphia. The track was produced by Y2K and also The Worst (aka Tim Henson), and comes coupled with a video directed by Patrick Lawler and Cameron Alexander. Both the video and the track firmly reinforce “Yas” as a good vibes fest, featuring sweet intricacy, echoing samples, and tag team instrumental focus. An easy chord progression coupled with intertwined layers of complexity is a reminder of something else that Polyphia do well: Seeming very chill while they’re hitting instrumental peaks. Mario and Erick add a sky high sharpness to the chill with their easy sophistication, drifting off into breeze while Polyphia regroup and take us to track end as a united force.
“So Strange” is a favourite of mine from New Levels New Devils, and has the vocal magic of Mexican-American singer Cuco on board. I spent a lot of time with this song playing over and over, and I intend on doing more of that as soon as I can. A summer roadtrip in a song, “So Strange” is a refreshing and heartwarming piece of music that has me picture big grins under sunglasses, hands resting legs while driving highways, wind in the hair, playing on the beach, and doing sweet things together like sharing ice cream and getting it on tips of noses.
Cheesy rom-com new-love interpretation aside, “So Strange” rules, and (though I’d never have predicted it before I heard it) the dream-pop vocals work so brilliantly well with Polyphia’s sound. Showing up casually and easily, and sharing their message to a lover, the vocals never threaten to take over or smother the track, leaving Polyphia’s moxie firmly intact. Bouncing bass twangs and kaleidoscopic travels up the guitar neck add to this fantasy vibe, and make it easy to love. I also dig the wistful trap-esque pulse heavy ‘bridge’ toward the end of the song, making me feel like the sun is setting and things may be going cold on this summer love. Play it AGAIN, AGAIN!
“Rich Kids” features Californian based musician Yvette Young. I’m taken by the heavy use of effects/distortion on this track, giving a sense of mystique to it. The feature expands upon that, stepping outside of the repeated guitar calls and angular takes from all instruments, with stand-out bass (to my ears). The time-slipping synth effects foreshadow Yvette’s tenderly strum focus, before expanding more widely like tendrils that stretch out into oblivion.
Oblivion is a good place from where to soak up the final track of New Levels New Devils: “G.O.A.T.”. An easily beloved favourite, “G.O.A.T.” fluidly travels its 3:36 span, instrumentally flexing all over the place. Yet while looking and feeling like it’s so easy. The Jake Woodbridge directed music video adds to this, turning something relatively simple (guys in a church) into a mesmerisingly artful piece.
Initially inspired by the Jaden Smith track “Breakfast”, this progressive metal and hip hop marriage is an impressive one. A thread of melody keeps us on the straight and narrow while vine-runners of complexity spread outward in multiple directions as each musician brandishes their capabilities.
Having dined at the table of New Levels New Devils, my TL;DR take is: It’s great, but it’s not OMG WOW. I appreciate the creative decisions that resulted in some really fascinating sounds, having Polyphia stand out as exceptionally unique. I also loved how the listener’s attention and focus is consistently pulled throughout the entire band, with no element feeling like ‘backing’ or a matter of just going through the motions.
There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm here for what they’re making and New Levels New Devils feels like a band having a really good time. The best of Polyphia for me were the moments/tracks that express this vibe with an ongoing sense of forward motion, a melody that sinks its teeth into you, and creative flare surrounding the persistent thread, or at least a thread that is only momentarily lost.
New Levels New Devils releases on 12th October via Equal Vision Records and can be pre-ordered here: https://polyphia.lnk.to/nlnd
Infectious excitement for creativity and the 'let's see what happens if we do this' vibe. A true united front who are reaching new ears through their desire to experiment and take inspiration from unpredictable places. A high flying one of a kind. Rise on, Polyphia!
Without a persistent or clear melody/groove, I got lost at times, finding it hard to get into the specific song. The tracks with features came across far more 'safe' than the more creatively experimental tracks that were Polyphia alone.