Unsure on who should review the new Pom Poko album, we decided to let both David and Andy write something. Two perspectives on one album, and two slightly differing views.
David Bentley writes:
Every band has to deal with second album syndrome, especially if the first one is a good ‘un. Pom Poko’s ‘Birthday’ wasn’t simply good, it was stellar; my #1 Nordic album of 2019. It had everything: power, majesty, strong melodies throughout,
massive anthems such as ‘Crazy Energy Night’ and ‘If U want me 2 stay’, which they run together into an awesome single eight-minute piece live, ballads like ‘Blue’ and ‘Honey’, manic jams but with a sense of purpose, pure pop with a catchy toon (‘Peachy’) and so much math rock it’s like every algebra, geometry, trig and calculus class you ever attended rolled into one.
Most importantly, it had immediacy. It belted you in the face then grabbed you around the waist like a martial arts fighter. It told you, this band is different.
They are on record as saying that with this album, ‘Cheater’, they “aimed more for some sort of contrast between the meticulously written and arranged songs and a more chaotic execution and recording, but also let ourselves explore the less frantic parts of the Pom Poko universe.”
So how does the ‘difficult second album’ compare?
Well it’s the same bunch of mathematicians but somehow the equation doesn’t get squared this time.
Title track ‘Cheater’ is more like a typical hard rock band with a corny riff. Right from the start technique and effects seem to be there mainly to prove prowess and Ragnhild’s vocal is even a little ‘off’ as well.
‘Like a lady’ is more of a pop song and the ‘Peachy’ of this album. Probably the best track.
‘Andrew ‘has a (too) technical opening and that continues throughout. It seems at times like they are trying to figure out the most complex syncopations they can. And that all too often gets in the way of what is a pretty good tune to start with.
In ‘My candidacy’ the punk side of their nature comes out in force with guitars being hammered. In comparison, Ragnhild’s voice sounds a little incongruous but it progresses to an impressive climax.
‘Danger Baby’ is the slowed-down ballad of the album. Notable for some complex guitar structures (but then, they all are), it will be interesting to see if they can replicate the sound on stage.
‘Andy go to school’ is a meandering track which is in the novelty league with a happy-clappy chorus and Ragnhild sounding like she’s on helium. Then comes an almighty, Birthday-like mad finale, which saves the day. In ‘Look’ that guitar-screeching finale comes up around the middle of the song but it sounds anachronistic.
The last three tracks, ‘Baroque Denial’, ‘Curly Romance’ and ‘Body Level’ are attractive songs if only because collectively they have a sense of purpose about them.
Overall, there are a number of engaging songs but melody is in comparatively short supply. There is too great a structural similarity between them, they are overly and unnecessarily complicated at timesand it is not quite the cohesive whole of the first album while lacking its urgency. At the Øya Festival in 2019 I criticised British experimental band black midi for writing needlessly complex songs and praised Pom Poko, who followed them on stage and have a similar musical academic background, for avoiding that trap. Now it appears they too might have been sucked into it.
It doesn’t say to you on every track (as Birthday did), “you have to see this band live” (when you can) which is a pity because their live performance has to be seen to be believed.
The problem with Pom Poko is that you really do need to listen to their songs quite a few times before you get the full effect but at least getting halfway there was much easier with Birthday. I’m sure Cheater will grow on me in time but on first listening I can only offer, regrettably, 7/10.
Andy Wors writes:
I remember writing about Pom Poko’s 1st album ‘Birthday’ and being a little bewildered about what I could say. I really liked and appreciated it, but such was the complexity and inventiveness that I knew it would take me a few weeks to fully appreciate the album. Even when I featured it in my Favourite Albums of 2019 it wasn’t at the top of my list, yet I kept listening and listening, and now if anyone asks me to recommend one Nordic indie band, I often quote Pom Poko.
So trying to write about the follow up ‘Cheater’ just 2 days after release was always going to be a problem, I know this will take a while to grow on me, and actually that’s part of the charm. I want to be challenged, I want an album that demands I go back and listen again and again, and I certainly don’t want to be bored of it after less than a month.
In that respect ‘Cheater’ doesn’t disappoint, as this is even more bewilderingly complex and inventive as ‘Birthday’. Does it contain as many ‘immediate hits’ as their debut? Possibly no, and does it at times head in such a leftfield direction that some will abandon their attempts to really enjoy it. Possibly yes.
But personally I love it.
We have featured a few of the singles, which I liked but David felt were a little ‘hit and miss’. For me ‘Like a Lady’ is the best of all, blistering still, with the contrasts in dynamics that work so powerfully, thanks to the blazing guitars and serene vocals, ‘My Candidacy’ maybe goes even further in those contrasts, vocals that brilliantly switch between angelic and biting, and fierce competing rhythmic and non rhythmic guitars.
But it’s the tracks we haven’t heard that that intrigue me so much. For sure it takes some getting into the slowed down and waywardly melodic ‘Danger Baby’ and it’s my least favourite track in the album, but ‘Andy Goes to School’ is a riot, with a stomping chorus that should definitely have the good ship Thekla rocking when they finally make it back to the UK in September.
The euphoric ‘Look’ is particular entertaining, from the offbeat blasts of guitar noises the start that remind me a little of Cardiacs, an anthemic chorus, searing guitars and huge contrasts to those familiar quiet sections. How it quite fits together I’m not sure, but it somehow seems to work for me.
‘Baroque Denial’ seems to have a more identifiable hook of sorts, but it’s notable for a huge instrumental build up to gorgeous and curious melodic section from vocalist Ragnhild, it’s compelling and I’m not sure I’ve heard anything like it previously. ‘Curly Romance’ is a warped pop track that introduces a gorgeous little tune and then hammers it into your mind at the end accompanied by post punk guitars, and it all ends with the ‘almost normal’ sounding ‘Body Level’,
Explosive and entertaining, technically brilliant of course and packed with an extraordinary amount of ideas in just over 30 minutes, for sure Cheater might be a demanding album that will confuse at times, but for me it’s well worth the investment. 8/10.