Polygons: Intimate Knowledge; Summer Inside the Atom
Think of the least likely places you're going to hear improvised music: a polished, dim upscale lounge in Dupont Circle, perhaps, or maybe the after-afterparty where revelers aren't dancing so much anymore as they are swaying, eyes half-closed, neon drugs turning to fog. No, improv is for the gallery, the back room, the crusty collective spaces, or so it usually goes anyhow. This gets at the weird contradiction in the music of Polygons, the Baltimore duo of Joshua Atkins and Miguel Sabogal. This is sexy, swishy electronic music crafted entirely off the cuff. For sexy, swishy improv fans? For music geeks with a fondness for velveteen pillows and a well-crafted cocktail? In the end, it doesn't really matter who it's for, but it does leave a unique appreciation for what Polygons are doing.
What they're doing on Polygons' most recent, Summer Inside the Atom, is a good, nocturnal time, even if the record does feel somewhat apprehensive. The more visible touchstones are ambient-techno marquee names like Boards of Canada or Autechre, though minus the fangs and chill of the latter and the pop and hip-hop impulses of the former. The palette on Atom is restrained: synthesizers buzz and swell; snares and high-hats make up most of the beats; timid blips appear almost submerged in the mix; the bass drones and soothes, mostly, but turns serrated and quite heavy on "Sample and Hold."
The apprehension comes out on tracks like the 11-minute-plus "Bay Bridge," which hangs onto its central groove/idea for a bit too long, but the record picks itself up well enough after. Closer "Vibrations of Possibility" is a favorite. From an opening pool of glimmering electronics, a great deal of sounds and textures come together--buzzsaw synthesizers, dense percussion, foreboding bass--in the current of a rare heartbeat pulse (for this record), delivering something oddly rare on an improv album: anxiety.
Intimate Knowledge, presumably released in tandem with or just before Summer Inside the Atom (details are elusive), is the more arresting of the two. If this is spinning in a glitzy lounge somewhere, then there's an opium pipe being passed around and the floor is sporting zig-zags and maybe there's a chair on the ceiling. It delights in its risks: not only is the mood surreal, but you can all but see the fingers on the buttons creating it. The beats are heavier, the melodies stronger, even the drones cut through the middle of the mix rather than supporting it.
In a sense, you're taking joy in its mistakes. On "Flight to Edinburgh," a drone--here a solid, acerbic pitch--seems as if it almost halves a skittering, off-kilter beat like a rusty saw. It doesn't feel right: One thing is moving too fast for the other; the drone is too high in the mix, making it combative. As the song progresses, you hear Polygons regulate the combination--the drone expands and softens, appears to sink below the beat, and become less an aggressive personality than a haunting backdrop.
Most of the songs between these two albums hover between four and six minutes in length. There are few 10-minute jams, but the short form seems more attuned to the kind of accessible improv the duo is going for. Intimate Knowledge does, however, deliver "Sex Not Love," a nearly 21-minute composition that builds to the extra-dimensional dub-funk-lounge that horrifically overlooked producer Strategy dominates. The song's long build-up kind of makes you want to hear Polygons have a go at a pure ambient/drone track, and they deliver at the very end with the too-brief "Vesper": a hum and waves of warm synth tone with little flits of odd sound playing between them. It's gorgeous but at three minutes, doesn't get the chance to develop into something that far beyond the currently vast field of ambient music circulating now. But, like everything Polygons does (at least between these two discs), it gets you in a mood.