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Whilst not at all a bad release, ‘The Death Of Me‘ is a puzzling album to me. It’s one of those competent yet strange metalcore releases that’s technically different than its predecessor, but also not that different, either. Polaris firmly plant their feet in two places on their sophomore: one being that of their overly-familiar, riffy metalcore style that’s made them so popular up till now and the other being these slight genre experimentations with their tried-and-true formula. Yet most changes to their sound on LP #2 are more horizontal than vertical; not a step backward, but rarely a step forwards.
‘The Death Of Me‘ is about personal growth, mental health, doubt, backing yourself, the pressure of expectations, crises of faith, better understanding yourself and the world around you; experiences all shared by a group of five young men who haven’t slowed down since their debut album launched them into metalcore stardom three years ago. That musical growth is there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s sometimes so minor or inconsequential, that at times it feels like Polaris have pulled their punches. Which is a real shame, truly. For they’re an extremely talented bunch of musicians, and if they took the creative gloves right off, who knows what other interesting surprises could spring forth.
No clearer was this heralded then what was stated at the time of the release for this new record’s first single, ‘Masochist.’ Whilst allowing frontman Jamie Hails more leeway to show a more intimate side to his singing (the whole song is one of his best vocal performances yet), it’s basically a distant cousin to that of ‘Dusk To Day,’ yet was described by the band and triple j upon its premiere as something different. Which is kinda laughable, as ‘Masochist‘ is a fine enough track, but some big new experiment for Polaris it is not. Granted, it must be quite hard for most artists, for most bands, to really progress their sound in a meaningful manner when they’re touring as constantly as Polaris does now.
Unlike the glorified August Burns Red covers albums that was 2017’s ‘The Mortal Coil,’ ‘The Death Of Me‘ is defined by slightly less guitar-shredding antics and outright metalcore bangers (though that’s still a BIG part of their sound here), instead intending to display more dynamic; for each and every song to be their own thing. Something they more or less accomplish, honestly. With ambient tones, electro-percussion, and some dark synths, Jamie roars loudly over the intro of opener ‘Pray For Rain,’ a decent first cut that builds-up well enough and morphs into the kind of a kinetic, familiar Polaris-branded metalcore belter: big clean vocals, tapping runs, string-skipping riffs, a neat little breakdown, low growls, and higher octave guitar atmospherics flying away in the distance.
The short and snappy ‘Hypermania‘ (or as I like to call it, ‘Hypermeh’ because of how uninspired it is) shows off a spicier Southern-hardcore attitude in the vocals and riffage, hopefully reminding everyone listening of the insane impact that bands like Every Time I Die had upon this genre and the newer generation of heavy artists coming forward. ‘Landmine‘ starts out life like a Slipknot track, with these sliding, alternating drop chugs getting the song lubed for what’s about to hit, with big pit-calls and equally big breakdowns, as well as savage blast beats stampeding through the song’s outro following Jamie’s war-cry of “Are we cursed and condemned to a life of misery?” It’s solid, and one of the stronger aggressive-leaning songs on offer, throwing in some sweet guitar-shredding, harmonics, and Phrygian notes; a real cut above the likes of ‘Hypermania‘ or ‘Creatures Of Habit.’
The stomping ‘Vagabond,’ written about being lost and never not feeling at home, leads with 90s-reminiscent, big alt-rock refrains and hooky guitar melodies, but still maintains their metalcore edge. Right after that, the darker movements for ‘Creatures Of Habit‘ could fool most people into thinking it’s as a long-lost B-side to their first album: soaring guitars and vocals, a huge final breakdown part, and even a whispered spoken vocal part a la something off Gravemind’s 2019 debut LP. However, it’s a very safe, generic cut for the Aussie quintet, and feels like an after-thought. The melodic prog-metal, major-key riffing of ‘Above My Head‘ could also be a song taken from any number of other heavy bands that currently occupy this same genre space. It’s like stepping into some bizarre Twilight Zone where a dozen different bands in metalcore and prog are actually just the one band. At nearly five-minutes in-length, for what it is, ‘Above My Head‘ could’ve been chopped down a little bit, but the subtle synths, interesting chord progressions, and mid-song instrumental jam that sounds like something ABR would’ve done on ‘Found In Far Away Places‘ or something from an older Misery Signals release, really save the day.
Now we get to the good shit. The stand-out: ‘Martyr (Waves).’ This is a beautiful, melancholic pop tune via its moody tones and vocal phrasing, growing into this big, melodic metalcore anthem driven along by bassist Jake Steinhauser’s singing with some 80’s rock-inspired moments, and some backing string arrangements too. It’s grown on me to become one of the album’s best songs and the most different track of the ten, hinting at what could’ve been if this mindset had been applied harder to the remaining nine. Where Polaris has since spoken about surprising audiences, this is THE song to do it with; a bolder metal/rock experiment that proves these guys can do much more than most of their peers.
The cool little whispers in the first verse and the super tasteful delay guitar-picking that bookends both sides to ‘All Of This Is Fleeting‘ are a real high-point. But they all get lost in the overwhelming walls of programmed strings and so-so metalcore moments that sound like they’re ripped straight from Architects‘ last record. Though, the droning, murky pre-breakdown synth heard just before Jamie bellows “no chance to buy back the life that we sold“, by far the heaviest passage of any Polaris song to date unfolds, was a good pay-off. Just as ‘Pray For Rain‘ started things off well half an hour earlier, ‘The Descent‘ then caps off ‘The Death Of Me‘ in a powerful manner. Excluding that wonderful bridge instrumental part that leads into the song’s shattering climax and the soft pianos that underpin the choruses, this is one of the more straight-forward Polaris songs on offer. Yet it’s perhaps the best iteration of such a sound found on ‘The Death Of Me.’
For me, excluding ‘Waves‘, most of these changes and growth spurts for the band don’t quite go far enough. ‘The Death Of Me‘ is a little like adolescence; like a band going through puberty, still working out exactly what’s going on and where they’re going next. Not only that, but these changes also aren’t all that unique to Polaris either. Metalcore (and hardcore or math-core) bands taking cues from older acts like ETID is so terribly common these days that I honestly don’t even know where I’d begin. Groups like Polaris showing their love for 90s rock isn’t very out-there, nor is incorporating poppier elements; whether its more frequent singing, different melodies, cleaner guitar tones, or using synth pads.
The noticeable grit behind Jake’s singing and yelling at certain points is a really nice addition, as is the band doing some odd song structures by mixing different parts (like on ‘Landmine‘). Next to the hyped-up nature of Jamie’s intense screaming, guitarists Ryan Siew and Rick Schneider help steal the show with some cool guitar-interplay, from their riffy back-and-forths, to when one takes the flashy lead for a short solo or a slick shred-fest. And if the band can better capitalize on these deeper instrumental sections, who knows how expansive their compositions could become.
Daniel Furnari – one of Polaris‘ key songwriters and a fuckin’ solid drummer in his own right – said in this album’s press release that: “Being our second full-length, we knew it was important for us to surprise the listener as well – nobody wants to hear the same record twice.” Maybe he should take his own advice to a much stronger degree come to their next record. Because Polaris has so much more potential to be something bigger, bolder and all-around better than just the “it” metalcore band of the now.
Anyone who tells you that with ‘The Death Of Me,’ Polaris are being innovative or are breaking new ground for heavy music in Australia right now is kidding themselves and you. Polaris’ second outing will be touted by many as a huge record for Australian music by the sheer virtue of the band hailing from Sydney, touring hard, and being quite successful and popular of late. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) They’re a hard-working band who are so hungry to prove themselves – their Unify 2020 set showed that – and they’ll be the next big thing. No two ways about it.
Yet this isn’t on par with albums that have actually dared to be different and daring for Aussie heavy music in the last few years; like Northlane’s incredible ‘Alien,’ Far West Battlefront’s ‘Status Cross,’ Ocean Grove’s ‘The Rhapsody Tapes,’ or anything Parkway Drive has released post-‘Atlas.’ This is a mid-ground metalcore album where its creators have felt the need to tow the songwriting line of what their fans expected, yet have yearned to try out fresh new ideas for themselves, but in half-measures that attempt to do both at the same time. Therefore having the consistency and power of neither. ‘The Death Of Me’ isn’t bad, and it does indeed move the needle further for Polaris’ sound, but only by mere inches.
Pray For Rain
Creatures Of Habit
Above My Head
All Of This Is Fleeting
‘The Death Of Me’ is out on Friday, February 21st: