“The one, and only reason this EP didn’t get a perfect score is because it left me wanting it to be an album, left me so badly wanting to hear another five songs.”
I wrote those words five years ago about Polar Bear Club’s debut EP, The Redder, The Better. Two full-lengths—2008’s Sometimes Things Just Disappear and 2009’s Chasing Hamburg—followed, but neither, good as they were, capitalized and expanded on the dynamism and vitriol of the debut.
Despite being on a longer format, neither felt as complete.
The Rochester, NY outfit’s third LP has no such issues. Clash Battle Guilt Pride is the record that The Redder, The Better has spent the last five years hinting at. The album that expounds on every strength the quintet has always possessed.
It sounds like a simple enough concept, but PBC have made every song on this record count: There are no throwaways, no skip-necessary tracks and not a single minute that feels out of order. From the slow-building “Pawner” to the finality of “3-4 Tango”, it’s a constantly churning, constantly evolving opus that defies convention and categorization the same.
At the centerpiece here is “Screams in Caves", which, to prophesize, will be the Polar Bear Club song everyone remembers when the band eventually calls it quits. There’s myriad reasons for such lofty praise, but look no further than the weathered pipes of singer Jimmy Stadt for the most eminent. From gruffly exclaiming "I’ll take my one-man army to the streets" to crooning "It left like melting snow, but came back tough as leather," in the spellbinding refrain it’s impossible not to focus on his delivery. It’s a delivery with simultaneous unrest and resolve, and it’s a delivery that perfectly coalesces with so many changes in sound. From the tempered riffing in the first verse to the fevered pitch reached before and after that final chorus, Stadt matches guitarists Chris Browne and Nate Morris step for step.
It’d be quite easy to lose pace or focus after such a monolith of a song, but there’s no such occurrence here.
This is where Polar Bear Club has shown the most growth: They could always record a howler like “Hollow Places”, but on full-lengths they could never sustain the momentum. The bridges between the previous album’s best songs were always tense and close to snapping. Here, the bridges are taut and brilliantly constructed.
“My Best Days” begins centered on Stadt’s vocals over minimal instrumentation, but the fault lines crack quickly and violently as some clean progressions bring out primal growls and "whoa-oh"s turn on the strength of the now-departed Emmett Menke’s fills. Not only does Stadt morph his approach after the quick rolls, but Browne’s arpeggios give the track yet another dimension. “I’ll Never Leave New York” finds the five-piece in a more reflective demeanor, with Stadt’s anguished vocals providing a perfect juxtaposition for the Saxon Shore-like undercurrents. The range of guitar sounds on the record is really something special—“Bottled Wind” is at once a crunchy, distortion-heavy affair and at next a dreamy, whimsical foray. “Slow Roam” spends the glut of its time meandering, prodding with tones usually reserved for Appleseed Cast records, but also manages to work in punches of thick, pulsating riffs. There’s no set sound for any one of these tracks, and in taking this approach they fixed one of their foremost weaknesses.
The last weakness the band was able to fix? Their ability to close.
Neither previous record finished in an emphatic or memorable way. Neither record gave the listener one final salvo to take home. Clash Battle Guilt Pride, on the other hand, finishes in style with “3-4 Tango”. A jaunty, kick drum-driven exposition. A crunch bass groove. A sublime vocal performance by Stadt. A churning, smoldering rhythm and a cavalcade of emotion lurches forth and intensifying drums carry the final chorus out in a fitting and satisfying end to what has been a long time coming for one of the most talented bands of the day.
It may have taken a long five years, but let there be no doubt, we've got our five more songs.