Polarizer is a phenomenal five-piece band from Chicago who play a progressive style of alternative rock they appropriately describe as “loud, spacey epic rock”, earning them comparisons to bands like Muse, Rush and Jane’s Addiction. Formed in 2011, they’ve undergone a few changes in line-up over the years, and now consist of singer-songwriter Taylor Brennan, Stan Tencza (keyboards), Ian Palmer (guitars), Chris Shen (bass) and John Schiller (drums). (Brennan is also vocalist for Chicago rock band The Million Reasons, who I’ve featured numerous times on this blog.)
Polarizer released their debut EP Lightscapes in 2013, followed by a superb full-length album The Fall and the Swell in 2016, after which they stayed fairly quiet over the next few years. They returned to the studio in late 2019 to begin recording their long-awaited second album Love from the Underground, but the pandemic interrupted their progress for several months. Finally, in August 2020, they released their single “One for One”, then followed six months later with a second single “Metronome”, which I reviewed. Both singles are included on Love from the Underground, which dropped November 11th.
Two years in the making, the album is most definitely worth the wait. It’s a dark, beautiful, and utterly magnificent work that marks a triumphal return for Polarizer. While none of its 12 tracks can be described as “catchy”, they’re all incredibly melodic and meticulously-crafted. Overflowing with nuance, the songs are highlighted by deeply compelling lyrics, jaw-dropping instrumentation and Brennan’s arresting tenor vocals. It’s not often that I love every single song on an album, especially one as long as this, but that’s exactly the case with Love from the Underground. I’ve listened to it more than ten times, and still feel almost giddy at the arrival of each song. This has also been one of the more challenging album reviews I’ve ever written, as there’s a lot to unpack, both musically and lyrically.
Like a lot of albums, this one also features songs addressing such oft-covered topics as love, loss, familial relationships and even politics. Kicking off the album is “Sink into the Ghost“, an intense rock song that, along with closing track “Dead Can Sing“, as well as the hard-hitting gem “We’ll Meet Again“, speak of coming to terms with losing people that helped shaped you, who with their deaths took a piece of you with them, and leaving you wondering whether you could have done anything to change the outcome. On “Sink into the Ghost”, Brennan passionately implores “What if I sing aloud the right words? What if I sing aloud, could I really be heard? It won’t bring you back. It won’t make me whole. Until the dead can be, I will sing no more.”
One of the highlights on an album full of them is “Metronome“, a truly spectacular song calling out the divisive and destructive ways of many of our leaders, and urging newer generations to rise up against those forces to build a better future, with a lyric from which the album’s title comes: “The old way is divisive. It keeps us small. Make way for the new kids. They’re coming up. / The future belongs to those in love from the underground.” Everything about the song is perfection from start to finish, and when the music erupts into a monumental crescendo, bolstered by Brennan’s impassioned vocals that almost sound like another instrument in themselves, I’m left covered with goosebumps. I love the song so much that it spent 20 weeks on my Weekly Top 30, going all the way to #3. I love the video too, which shows the guys giving a socially-distanced yet electrifying performance in a Chicago studio.
Continuing on a similar theme, “One for One” is a scathing takedown of those who traffic in conspiracy theories, intolerance and extreme political views, nicely delivered with hard-driving rhythms, grungy riffs and psychedelic synths. Brennan’s vocals are almost chilling as he sings the biting lyrics: “I’m fluent in this psycho talk. I speak the party’s opinion. Last one in on the lie and the lie’s all yours. I am a nightmare in the dark. Turn on the lights I come to life. Melody never taught that you can’t catch falling stars. I’m all for one and one for one. The story ends. You’ve lost your friends to the party’s opinion. There’s a lot on the line. So where is your line crossed?” Man, those last three lines really resonate with me, as recent political trends have greatly strained or ended several friendships and familial relationships.
Polarizer ventures toward metal rock on “Eventually You Get Caught“, with an opening guitar riff that reminds me a bit of “Enter Sandman”, though the song sounds totally different, both melodically and structurally, than the Metallica classic. And the flourishes of distortion at the end are definitely metal-esque. The hard-driving “Everything is Mad” is heavy and intense, though Brennan told me it’s meant to be a joyful song about a parent feeling so stunned and humbled by bringing a new life into the world, but also left wondering what this responsibility and joy means when they aren’t living their own truth. Will the compromises they need to make in order to experience true happiness be reachable?
The band’s extraordinary musicianship is showcased on virtually every track, highlighted by Palmer’s virtuoso guitar work, Tencza’s colorful keyboards and the tight rhythmic grooves of Shen and Schiller not to mention Brennan’s gorgeous resonant vocals. Case in point is “Ever a Stranger“, with beautiful riffs layered over a galloping bassline, and featuring a thrilling guitar solo by Palmer in the bridge. The lyrics touch on the loss of innocence, and realizing you can no longer rely on a relationship when your partner refuses to meet you halfway. “Fear the attraction, harder to trust. You’re calling it love, but your love’s not returned. /And I need you now, how I knew you then, but strangers still have a way to go.”
The centerpiece of the album is “Le Drama Des Os” (The Drama of Bones), a stunning five-minute long celestial masterpiece that tells the romantic saga of Black Hole and Nova. Brennan explained the meaning behind their characters: “Black Hole is the more isolated loner, living day to day, not pushing himself to find happiness, just floating about, not taking chances. The ‘black hole’ title means that this character needs light and joy in his life he hasn’t seen before. Like a black hole when he receives this light, this energy, he can’t get enough of it, consuming it at all costs. And Nova is the opposite, an endless giver of light and energy, who meets Black Hole at the time when he needs her most, but the mutual need and attraction is almost unsustainable, its almost destructive. It’s like two magnets being pulled apart slowly but that attraction being too strong to break it apart. They get together at all costs, and it either is the most beautiful love ever on record, or it ends the world around them as they know it.“
The song opens with Palmer’s glittery guitar riff, accompanied by Shen’s gentle bassline as Brennan softly introduces us to the two characters: “Black Hole was proud to be alone. He never had to give a piece away. Nova had pieces on her mantle, that never added up to anything. The Big Bang they felt was catastrophic challenged everything they thought they knew.” The music explodes like a supernova in the choruses with a riotous mix of raging and swirling guitars, thumping bass, otherworldly synths and thunderous drums, before calming back down in the verses as Brennan concludes the story: “Finally their eyes met from a distance. The bigger bang had stolen from their core. As the world around them faded into darkness, nothing of the pieces that they were. Traveling the path of least resistance. Compromise with the best intentions, still halfway to nowhere.”
The great songs keep on coming. “Phases of the Moon” is a full-blown rocker, loaded with a chugging barrage of gnarly riffs and explosive rhythms. Brennan’s vocals sound lower and more muscular on this track, and I love how they trail off to a low growl at the end. The darkly beautiful “Time of Death” has a strong Muse vibe, thanks to its eerie piano riffs and shredded guitars. Brennan passionately laments “Throw me a line, I feel insane. Does it seem that way to you? It falls away, it’s all the same. Another hour I’m making mirror deals selling out my future self. High hopes are put off until tomorrow.” And the marvelous Alice in Chains-esque “Glow”, with its fierce, jaw-dropping guitar work and explosive rhythms, speaks of being drawn to someone so intensely that you can barely function.
The dramatic album closer “Dead Can Sing” brings things full-circle with a blend of shimmery and gnarly guitars, sparkling keyboards, pummeling bass, tumultuous percussion and soaring vocals, giving the song a wonderful anthemic quality. In the final chorus Brennan plaintively sings the refrain “Until the dead can sing and be heard, where do I turn to? And in the end when it’s my turn, how will I find you?” as the song fades off in a trail of spooky synths and military drumbeats.
What more can I say about this spectacular record that I haven’t already gushed about? Love from the Underground is a marvelous, flawlessly-produced album, and one of the best of 2021 in my humble opinion. I love Polarizer’s music, and hope my readers will give this album a listen and enjoy it as much as I do.