escribing the deep, murky, and uncommonly inspired techno produced by Toronto’s Sandro Perri – better known as Polmo Polpo – requires a bit of an unusual starting point, so I propose something of an experiment. First, dub your favorite Basic Channel record to a well-worn and wobbly cassette tape, preferably one that once featured some steel-guitar-laden instrumental rock or a twice-erased Tony Conrad violin drone. Next, drive to the nearest fast-moving body of water and toss the weighted cassette toward the middle. Once the tape has been completely submerged in a layer of rippling silt, retrieve the cassette and shake until a thin deposit of grit coats the playing surface and just a hint of water sloshes inside. Find the most bass-heavy sound system available, play loud, and enjoy.
Of course, this plan is more than a little reductive and hardly does justice to the refined sexiness and masterful atmospherics that grace Polmo Polpo’s full-length debut, The Science of Breath – but it’s a start. True, your river-constructed cassette would feature many of the signposts of the Polmo Polpo sound. You would still find plenty of driving house rhythms decked out in echo-chamber fashion, dub bass rumblings, hints of cello and high lonesome slide guitar, and more-than-generous doses of hiss and drone. The results of the experiment would, however, lack all the less tangible qualities that make The Science of Breath such an intriguing listen. Lost to chance would be the painterly knack for texture cultivated by Perri over sold-out series of pre-Science 12” EPs released on his own Audi Sensa imprint. Also missing would be Polmo Polpo’s preternatural gift for thematic richness and coherence, a gift matched only by the producer’s sharp ear for subtle and haunting melody. Unlike your soggy cassette, Polmo Polpo has more than just a sound – there’s an abundance vision and careful craftsmanship, too.
As suggested by the title and accompanying undersea photographs, The Science of Breath is rich in aquatic metaphor. Undulating with the grace and hidden strength of its octopi cover models, the album’s four beat-based tracks – culled from Perri’s final two EPs – and four ambient interludes speak to the darker depths of the ocean. Their ambitious length and busy layering summon images of an expansive sea floor stirred by static-spewing steam vents and the constant rumbling of unseen fault lines. On “Oarca,” for example, a steadily pulsing bass pattern cycles beneath a grainy current of hiss and whispering feedback while clouds of muffled clatter gather overhead. Obscure mumblings shrouded in decaying delay float lazily through the haze, as do slow-moving drifts of white noise. In contrast, the more active shuffling of “Acqua” suggests a twilit realm closer to the surface and teeming with life. Stereo-panned synths flitter in ripples over a murky bass and a distant 4/4 thump; meanwhile, a duo of looping slide guitars shimmer like shafts of undersea sunlight amidst billowing delay disturbances. The surrounding ambient interludes – entitled “High Breathing,” “Mid Breathing,” and “Low Breathing” – suggest the changes in depth between these imaginary landscapes, their languid washes of crackling drone shifting from airy ocean-surface evocations to the rhythms of scuba-masked breathing and back.
Polmo Polpo’s true masterpieces, however, reside at the conclusion of The Science of Breath . “Rottura,” with its smooth-contoured elegance and poignant lyricism, finds Polmo Polpo at its most openly melodic. Amidst subliminal cello bowing, tendrils of coarse distortion swirl from a rock-solid bed of muffled drum throb and sultry dub bass. Tremulous vibrations surround elegiac eddies of a processed steel guitar whose wavering reflections sound out like sonar pings from a lonesome submarine crawling through an inky sea. “Rottura” dissolves into the murmuring of “Complete Breath,” a delicately textured interlude marked by far-off rattles of guitar and a gently insistent bubbling – a fitting prelude to the album-closing “Riva.” The urgent call-and-response of bass drum and hi-hat coupled with a buoyant pedal steel loop suggests a final drive toward the surface, while the chugging of bowed double bass supplements the track with restless motion. A final triumphant upturn marked by a buzzing, overdriven bass yields to an infinitely decaying final chord signaling a silence apart from the sea – or perhaps the relief of the “complete breath” hinted at by the preceding interlude. That such imagery can be drawn from Polmo Polpo’s arrangement of the raw materials of dance music – unchanging drum pulses, tightly motivic melodies, delay-influenced textural play – stands a testament to Perri’s singular gift for aural imagery and well-chosen sonic detail.
Indeed, Polmo Polpo’s debut emerges as something more than a mere record of dirtied-up house tracks; instead, The Science of Breath is an album that is truly more than the sum of its constituent parts. Within the framework of grainy, dubbed-out techno, Sandro Perri has succeeded in creating a work of uncanny emotional resonance and lyrical grace without compromising his gritty textures and faultless dance floor sensibility. The human warmth and attention to detail evident on The Science of Breath reflects a vision so individual that simple attempts at stylistic description – such as our previously-mentioned experiment – can only tell half the story; only repeated listens can unearth each ear-tingling prickle or heart-tugging melody. A fascinating first offering from a promising new producer.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01