Polytown – a polyrhythmic classic that improves with age

Clockwise from top: Karn, Torn and Bozzio.

Musicianly wank or an effing great album by three musicians at the top of their game? Total classic, proclaims GARY STEEL.

Clockwise from top: Karn, Torn and Bozzio.

Musical virtuosity all by itself is rather empty. That’s one of the main reasons critics have tended to write off whole genres like progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion. Who likes show-offs? But musical virtuosity when it’s tied to genuine substance: adventurous sound worlds, collaborative expression, meaningful intent or compositional integrity can be hugely rewarding, entertaining and aurally stimulating.

When David Torn, Mick Karn and Terry Bozzio released their Polytown project through German audiophile label CMP in 1994, I was predisposed to writing it off as musicianly bollocks. I loved the CMP label’s adventurous attitude and the way it had made up for the ECM label’s retreat into safety by following its example (beautiful cover artwork, stunning recording engineering, and an artist-led approach) yet taking on a more challenging agenda. By ’94, the label had expanded its jazz remit to include world music and even some rock-based experiments.

 

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One of these experiments was the first of several albums by former Japan bassist Mick Karn, Bestial Cluster (1993) on which he was able to play his distinctively wiggly fretless bass over his own concoction of globally-influenced groove-rock. Karn (RIP) was an undersung talent who had been overshadowed by the poster-boy good looks and attractively tremulous vocals of David Sylvian on the classic Japan album Tin Drum (1981).

Mick Karn

Somehow, Karn’s association with CMP led to the supersession supreme that made up the running time of Polytown. On paper, it seemed doomed from the start. Terry Bozzio had been one of Frank Zappa’s more high-octane drummers in the late ‘70s but latterly, his kit had seemingly blossomed along with his ego. How would less “showy” musicians like guitarist David Torn and (especially) Mick Karn cope with Bozzio’s over-the-top virtuosity? Surely it would be a top-heavy project and one of those pointlessly vapid sessions that would inevitably sound like less than its constituent parts.

Consequently, back in ’94, I dutifully played it a few times while never quite undoing my prejudice towards it, and filed it away for about 20 years. When I did finally yank it from the rack for a quick spin a few years ago it completely floored me. Polytown wasn’t just a rancid supersession, it was a modern-day classic, and I couldn’t stop playing it.

Terry Bozzio

Bozzio’s presence is certainly large and I guess I would nominate him as the defacto leader, simply because his musical knowledge and performative ability are so striking and unignorable throughout. But he doesn’t dominate to the point that he squashes the endeavours of the other two, and I’d go so far as to note that he’s purposely slowed things down to a pace that allows Karn’s bass to manoeuvre. It’s Karn that gives the album its “tunes” and his bass on several of these pieces wriggles out melodies that hook into your brain and just won’t go away. Check out ‘Open Letter To The Heart Of Diaphora’ for its tantalizing world music fusion and especially ‘Bandaged By Dreams’.

David Torn – a guitarist who has played sessions from everyone from Bowie through to Karn’s old bandmate David Sylvian – spoons out the secret sauce. His guitar sound and musical persona is in many ways similar to that of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, and like Fripp he shreds but not just for the sake of it, more for the sound of it. He likes gadgetry, too, but it’s always for the benefit of the music, and his processed loops provide the album with lashings of atmosphere.

A rare example of a supersession recording where each of the musicians has clearly listened to what the others are doing while still finding a way to do what they do best, Polytown reminds me a lot of 1980s/1990s King Crimson, but eschews vocals for a more imaginative ride. It has to be said: Bozzio is like a percussively-inclined family of octopi and the mere sound of his battery of drums is hugely pleasurable. It’s an exceptionally fine-sounding album from an audio standpoint with heaps of slam where it’s needed, crisp top end and deep, grunty bass. That certainly ramps up the pleasure factor, but would be irrelevant if the music itself wasn’t so great.

Sadly, CMP went out of business sometime in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, but it can be purchased digitally or sampled on the usual streaming services.

  • This review is in Gary Steel’s RANDOM PLAY series, in which he yanks old albums from his collection and gives them a dusting off.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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