Review by Austin Sisson
Remember when prog was fun? Me neither. And I’m a genre fan. I’m wearing a Yes T-shirt as I write this. There are plenty of reasons for this joylessness: too many dudes for too long (thank you, universe, for Curved Air and Kate Bush), an unhealthy attachment to classical music, an unwillingness to cut a track with a radio-friendly length, etc. But it’s the self-seriousness that really drags the genre through the mud.
Pom Poko joins the ranks of the 21st century artists reversing all of these unfortunate trends with their sophomore album Cheater, a truly enjoyable collection with airtight instrumentation that strikes and disappears like a lit match, and an electric front person in Ragnhild Fangel, who effortlessly elevates every sudden tempo change with a vocal as sweet and sharp as rock candy. But best of all—like their easiest analog Deerhoof—Pom Poko are here to have fun, and in doing so, establish themselves as leaders in the prog-pop scene. Prog-pop! Fun words to write.
The virtuosity of each individual in the Norwegian quartet is immediately apparent on record, a characteristic that extends to their live shows (or vice versa). Simon Raymonde—Cocteau Twins multi-instrumentalist-turned-Bella Union label head—said this of his recent signees: “What also drew me in so fast was that every member was brilliant to watch. Lots of bands have one or two star performers, but this band has four!”
Pom Poko’s egalitarian approach pays dividends throughout the album as vocal runs, drums, and guitars clear their own winding paths before the trails rejoin. The eponymous album opener sounds like the roof coming off of a packed aviary, a flurry of disparate sounds bursting into the sky until all that’s left is a wailing siren note. The crunchy “Like A Lady” sees rhythm and lead guitars duel over a steady drum until Fangel jumps in to effortlessly match the melody. Pom Poko almost feels like a jazz quartet if everyone was always soloing at the same time, crashing back together when you least expect it. This playing style is summed up in a line in standout track “My Candidacy,” which doubles as a textbook example of the psychological concept of secure attachment: “Go out/Explore/Come back again.”
Any attempt to label Pom Poko’s jitteriness as mere chaos are refuted by “Andrew,” which makes excellent use of syncopation and empty space before blooming in the second chorus. “Danger Baby” flirts with the fluttering guitars of downtempo Strokes and a pre-chorus drum fill reminiscent of “Under Control,” before Fangel skips off into the ascending, hopscotch chorus. Burbling guitars and a low chant of “danger…baby” in the bridge threaten to take us out on a menacing note, before a last-second reprise reminds us that we’re here to have fun.
“Andy Go to School” shares a syllable count with “Andy You’re a Star” but isn’t quite as interesting, but if Andy is a dip, it doesn’t last long. “Look” starts with a “War Pigs” hi-hat and guitar combo that somehow outfuzzes the Sabbath track. Fangel reminds the listener to “keep your mind at ease” with the wooziness of George Harrison on “Within You Without You.” But just in case you aren’t paying attention, she follows up with some tough love, grabbing you by the shoulders and nearly shouting over insistent guitars: “Look at the grass/Look at the trees/You can breathe, you can breathe.” It’s solid advice, whether you’re tripping on acid or just trying to survive 2020/2021.
If “Look” is a reminder to stay grounded, “Baroque Denial” is the beautiful bliss-out that follows those breathing exercises and orange slices. The background vocals are barely there but add a layer of warmth; the subtle difference in sunlight through a clean window, rather than a dusty one. Fangel continues to shine in a sparse bridge, vocals once again in sync with a lovely guitar melody. She channels Merrill Garbus, Satomi Matsuzaki, and Leigh Nash in equal measure on “Curly Romance,” drums leading a sexy swing before a guitar blip heralds some impending, heightened intensity. This, the penultimate and best song on the album, would have been a fitting closer.
I’m glad it isn’t. “Body Level” gives us vocal harmonies splashed against a wall of sound, fading into a resonant, sitar-esque guitar chime and organ. I laughed out loud at the guitar stinger at the end. I had my receiver turned up pretty loud and almost spilled my coffee. “Body Level” is the equivalent of catching a breather after a race with a friend, all breathless laughter and arms around shoulders. That little guitar blast is the friend taking off again. I don’t know where Pom Poko is headed next, but I know I’ll be sprinting after them.