Paving the Labyrinth - Polyopia Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothPaving the Labyrinth are a practiced and technical band with a strong debut album.  Polyopia is a combination of technical post-rock and melodic prog with an experimental edge, and will appeal to any fans of gritty, complex music.

Artist: Paving the Labyrinth
Label: independent
Time: 8 tracks / 48:00 minutes

Paving the Labyrinth are a four-piece band from Johannesburg, South Africa.  Their music is a combination of technical post-rock (almost math rock at times) and melodic prog, with additional psychedelic flavors and an experimental edge.  The band utilize the dissonance-as-melody, Mars Volta type of approach, using the grating crash of guitars against throaty vocals to push the boundaries of melody and create a harsh yet technically proficient sound.  I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the post-rock/post-hardcore scene per se, but PTL fall at some junction of the Venn diagram linking all of these categories together.  Released May 1st, Polyopia is Paving the Labyrinth’s debut album, a capable showcase of these talented musicians’ quality songwriting ability, and is still a name-your-price download from their bandcamp page.

Initially formed in 2011, the band is Max Liebenberg (drums/violin), Levi Thöle (guitars/vocals), Angelo Dias (guitars), and Shakeel Sohail-Gibran (bass).  The fact that PTL’s compositions are principally structured on their dual guitars – not to mention the fact that Thöle and Dias are also the primary composers – means that Polyopia’s material leans heavily on interwoven guitar parts, often panned hard left and right, and sharing unison as often as they trade parts.  Thöle’s singing bears similarities to a number of other voices I admire – in particular, Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Peter Hammill (Van der Graaf Generator), and Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), all artists with a similar dissonant bend to their music, as well as the same whimsical, slightly out-of-tune throatiness.

Polyopia’s 8:00-minute opener, “Morning Star” is an art rock track with a broad scope, treading all the territory between rock ballad, chamber music, and experimental jam.  This was the track that introduced me to Paving the Labyrinth, as it was featured on DPRP Radio’s podcast (a Dutch website devoted to progressive rock) alongside a track from my band’s own album.  To be frank, I’d hoped the violin would be a regular element of PTL’s music (and hopefully it will be so on future releases), but “Morning Star” is the only track on Polyopia to feature Liebenberg’s secondary instrument.  After a strong opening groove, riding eighth note bass stabs, the lush, overdubbed strings join Thöle’s and Dias’ electric guitars for the opening 2:00 minutes of instrumental.  The gritty refrain – “I don’t care if you can’t sing, just shut up and worship the sky,” a critique of organized religious ceremony – stands in stark contrast to the melodic verse, both in terms of the strong shift in dynamics as well as a change in meter.  The song transitions again at the 4:30-minute mark to a more reserved bridge, briefly alluding to the sentiment of “Morning Star’s” opening passage: one electric guitar plucking steady quarter notes, the other panned far right and meandering through a loose accompanying melody.  The final 2:00-minute segment of this instrumental bridge is a post-rock explosion of growling guitars.  The strings and gentle guitar return for the outro after one final refrain – an abbreviated reprise of the opening section.

“Concrete Garden” enters on the heels of “Morning Star’s” lingering violin notes.  Though this 4:00-minute track is closer to the average rock tune in terms of length, its structure is unusual and retains all of PTL’s post-rock tendencies: one verse and refrain, superseded by a pair of instrumental passages.  A very Tool-inspired breakdown emerges at the 1:10-minute mark, transitioning briefly into a grating metal romp in 7/8, and finally resulting in the album’s first guitar solo.  “Concrete Garden’s” handful of lyrics all appear during its opening minutes: “I am man / This is what I'll do / I am man / This is what we’ll choose / I am.”  These sparse statements of self-identification – as well as an appeal to the cooperative norm of society (“this is what we’ll choose”) – are a simple affirmation of individuality and human will: a concrete foundation with the aesthetic beauty of natural creativity.

After “Concrete Garden’s” irregular motion, “Lost (Signs Everywhere)” moves in steady albeit tense 4/4 and also employs a more traditional verse/chorus pairing.  As per Paving the Labyrinth’s mantra, this 8:00-minute track is a dynamic roller coaster with several instrumental sections.  Another compositional strength the band particularly exhibit on this track is their ability to leave empty space in their songs: there are moments throughout “Lost” that are sparse and atmospheric, extending the band’s dynamic and experimental freedom by contrasting all the more sharply with the heavier refrains.  Thöle’s and Dias’ employ their guitars to maximum efficiency as well, weaving conjoined melodies above the bedrock foundation of Sohail-Gibran’s bass work.  Thematically, “Lost” is somewhat bipartite: the fact that the speaker is lost despite the signs posted all around suggests either the futility of the road markers or the ignorance of the lost traveler.

“Hooked up in the Third Reich” is another quirky track, perhaps my favorite on the album, clocking in at 7:18 minutes.  Again, Sohail-Gibran’s bass – in tight communication with  Liebenberg’s percussion – forms the constant element beneath the riffing of PTL’s guitarists.  The track moves fluidly through a number of time changes – back and forth between 4/4 during instrumental sections and choppy 3/4 during Thöle’s singing, as well as meandering into measures of 7/8 during the first break.  At the 3:40-minute mark, both guitars explode into an experimental metal type of dissonance, which then introduces another guitar solo – a brief, dirty-n-sloppy Jack White kind of lick.  The return to the post-hardcore breakdown ends suddenly, leaving the track silent for its final seconds.

At 4:34 minutes, “Narcissus” employs similar time changes to “Third Reich.”  The introduction moves in measures that descend from nine beats to eight beats to seven beats before resetting.  The verses are a more regular 3/4, while the heavy choruses sway in 6/8.  Aside from the complex meter, my favorite segment of “Narcissus” begins at the 2:25-minute mark, where both guitars partner in the unison/harmonic passage, and then the whole band joins for the heavy bridge in straightforward 4/4.  The introductory passage returns, precluding one final verse and the final guitar chords that ring out to end the track.

“Clinging to the Last Thing You Thought Was True” is the album’s shortest, most compact song, and is also its only completely instrumental piece.  The gentle guitar melody that introduces the composition belies the grinding refrain, furious central riff, syncopated hits, and harmonic/unison runs that altogether embody its compositional heart.  This track is another strong demonstration of PTL’s math rock influences, as it moves through a number of rapid time and meter changes, and employs complicated syncopation across all instruments.

“Cold Silence” begins in much the same way “Clinging” did, albeit with both guitars moving in harmonic patterns alongside the bass.  The track’s intro is another prime example of the empty spaces that ruminate in Polyopia’s compositions, permitting the ebb and flow of dynamics to infuse passion and reflectiveness into the music – here, invoking the image of a prisoner’s breath materializing in the cold air before fading once again into nothingness.  “Cold Silence” is another gorgeous composition overall: chilling guitar harmonics, performed in tight unison with bass and cymbal splashes, as well as harmonic/unison picking across all stringed instruments, interrupted by the raw explosion of each guitar-driven refrain.

Polyopia’s final track, “Revelator,” is a slow burn, evolving gradually from its whimsical guitar-and-bass intro into its later, heavier incarnation.  Tension mounts between each passage of singing, as instrumental pre-choruses and the album’s final guitar solo drive the track’s momentum forward.  At 1:43, the first refrain explodes into the tremolo strumming of each guitar, split between high and low voicings of the same chord.  Another transition, an instrumental bridge of sorts, comes at 3:05: a series of syncopated stabs overtop a riffing bass-line.  The track’s final segment begins at 4:40 – at first a reserved guitar passage in 4/4 with interwoven parts, then strong triplets that mount into an instrumental reprise of the track’s refrain, interrupted momentarily by the grinding chug of a metal breakdown.  The last seconds of “Revelator” are all lingering feedback and echoing guitar notes, tacked uncertainly onto the song’s conclusion like anticlimactic postscripts.

Polyopia is a strong and well-performed piece of music, but it’s certainly not perfect – nor would I expect a band’s debut release to be without the possibility of improvement.  Thöle’s vocal work is sturdy throughout the album, but his raw approach presents some nuanced challenges and sometimes strikes me as more improvised than rehearsed.  Maybe that’s what he intended, and maybe this is just my preference, but I think that it only makes sense to save the ad lib riffing for the live performance, and instead construct the album’s vocal takes as the template to follow onstage.  Additionally, I also feel that the album’s overall production leaves something to be desired.  It’s studio quality, certainly, but there’s something about the mix that sounds at times like a basement recording.  This could be due to the fact that the band don’t utilize any synth to cake on instrumental depth, so the absence of any string pads or other backing tracks perhaps draws attention to the “flat” quality of the album.  Finally, Polyopia doesn’t really have a strong unifying theme (that I can identify, at any rate), nor does it have a solid concluding track.  The end of “Revelator” trickles away, and suddenly I find myself listening to “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” and wondering why it sounds so familiar…

These are all minor complaints, of course – certainly not intended to detract from the quality release that Polyopia represents.  In sum, Paving the Labyrinth are a practiced and extraordinarily technical band with a strong debut album.  Fans of music with an experimental bend will find a lot to like in Paving the Labyrinth’s materialThough not eccentric to the degree of The Mars Volta, Jumble Hole Clough, or any of Thom Yorke’s material, PTL do incorporate the same type of non-traditional songwriting approach and incredibly elastic dynamics that many of those artists also employ.  Paving the Labyrinthfind a niche in the midst of these technical genres, thanks in part to the pair of guitars in their arsenal, as well as to Thöle and Dias’ shared musical vision.  Polyopia is their first of (hopefully) many showings, and does not disappoint.

Justin Carlton