The Polyphonic Spree
The Fragile Army
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by John Metzger
Tue June 26, 2007, 05:30 AM CDT
In an age where divisive polarization has become commonplace, the unifying aura of The Polyphonic Spree’s work is refreshing and pure, or, at least, it would be if only it wasn’t so tainted by the unsettling qualities of the group’s quasi-spiritual, cult-like appearance. Although the ensemble has shed the long, flowing robes that it wore for its first two endeavors The Beginning Stages of... and Together We’re Heavy, it now comes adorned in a set of nondescript, black, military uniforms. Whether traipsing across a field — as it is on the cover of its latest outing The Fragile Army — or placed before a red-, white-, and blue-striped backdrop — as it is on the album’s insert — The Polyphonic Spree’s zombie-like appearance is as terrifying as it is intriguing.
Much like The Polyphonic Spree’s previous efforts, the heart of The Fragile Army is forged from a dense blend of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Brian Wilson’s Smile. To this heady concoction, it adds a healthy dusting of The Beatles, The Who, and The Moody Blues. No one, in fact, has been able to milk the essence from these outings and these groups as well as — or for as long as — The Polyphonic Spree, though there are hints that the collective understands that with each passing album, its leash has grown increasingly short. Throughout The Fragile Army, the guitars rage a little louder than they had before, and although the songs retain a certain epic, prog-rock ambience, they also are tilted in a more pop-oriented direction. Combined with the electronic beats and crystalline piano that creep through Light to Follow — which, incidentally, were plucked from contemporary acts, such as Air and Zero 7 — it’s clear that The Polyphonic Spree is looking for a way to broaden its palette and advance its cause, while still leaving room for its 20-odd members to paint the sort of kaleidoscopically inclined ear candy for which they have become known. Just what point the ensemble is trying to make, however, is anyone’s guess.
Even more than it did on its prior endeavors, The Polyphonic Spree uses The Fragile Army to pit the darkness of the world against the glowing light of its idealistic outlook. After reiterating the closing moments of its preceding effort Together We’re Heavy, the band begins Running Away by singing, "I’m projecting and reflecting desire for you to come into my life" while the concluding track (The Championship) speaks of crosses that are turning into guns. Whether the group is singing praises to some higher power or simply referring to the earthly interactions among humans, the heavier injection of global politics into its work is meant to add weight and relevance to the peace and love vibrations of its musings. The end result, though, is still a muddled and confused mess of fractured relationships and inspirational platitudes that oftentimes feel trite.
Initially it appeared as if The Polyphonic Spree, under the guidance of Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle, was hatching a gargantuan scheme, the secret of which resided within some hidden playbook of its own devising. Everything from the absurd size of the band to the successional sequencing of its albums seemed to indicate that a greater plan was in motion, one which would be revealed in its own good time. Just as serialized television programs notoriously and routinely have stretched their storylines — sometimes beyond comprehension — for season after season, The Polyphonic Spree has pushed its cryptogrammatic mythology nearly to its breaking point. Although its ambitions undeniably are grand, its output has amounted to what currently stands as a 32-segment suite of seemingly interconnected songs that now are in desperate need of a payoff. Deliriously delightful as its efforts have been — and The Fragile Army contains more than its share of immediately ingratiating melodies, all of which are bedecked in three-dimensional, Technicolor arrangements — The Polyphonic Spree’s penchant for dispensing its material with an air of over-the-top theatricality is beginning to look, at least to those who haven’t sipped the Kool-Aid, like a marketing gimmick rather than a cleverly devised concept. While this approach certainly will hook a small segment of its audience for the duration of its journey, The Polyphonic Spree very well might find that it has lost many more prospective fans in the process.
The Fragile Army is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box