The year is 1258. After besieging the city, the Mongol army breaks its way into Baghdad and begins to lay waste to it. Various libraries and seats of accumulated knowledge are targeted including, according to some reports, the House of Wisdom. So many ancient texts were supposedly dumped into the river Tigris that day that the waters ran black with the ink. It is not recorded, however, whether one of these Mongol invaders pauses to wonder aloud whether their actions in the city would one day, some 800 years in the future, inspire seventy minutes of brain-twisting instrumental math-prog. We can but hope.
Hailing from Brighton, UK, Poly-Math has been contorting time and space since 2013. As well as a busy gig calendar, the trio has released a pair of densely packed EPs – Reptiles and Melencolia – and have now given themselves the broader canvas of a long-player to stretch their limbs over. House of Wisdom | We Are The Devil is presented as a double album, with eleven tracks filling nearly seventy minutes. Ambitious.
Further indication of this ambition can be found in the fact that in order to fully bring these new songs to the stage, Poly-Math has augmented their power trio line-up with a keyboard player. That they have resisted the call of the backing track should be applauded, although given their undoubted passion for wonky time signatures, listening to a Poly-Math click track is going to be a sure-fire route to madness.
Of course, applying a high-minded concept to an instrumental album is never going to be a completely straightforward affair, so with the exception of a couple of snippets of spoken word exposition, it’s hard to tell precisely what influence this concept had on the writing sessions. Poly-Math has also utilised an intriguing naming convention to the tracks on House of Wisdom | We Are The Devil. Every track has two names, seeming to refer to the two halves of the title. So there’s a case to be made that it can be divided horizontally through the tracklist, with an introductory preface and then five tracks apiece, or that the division is vertical, running through the whole thing. God knows how you’d listen to the two halves separately in the latter instance, though.
But maybe that’s the point. Certainly, the notion of two independent entities irrevocably enmeshed serves as a neat metaphor for the Tim Walters’ guitars and Joe Branton’s basslines. Often venturing away from each other with intrepid expeditions into tempo and tone, driven by the expanse of effects pedals at their feet, they then unite to give the occasional Big Riff an extra dynamic punch that goads the listener into attempting to headbang in sevens or nines. Or even seven then nine. Then thirteen. The first beat of the bar is a constantly moving target, and one that is more likely to be found through muscle memory built up through repeat listens than any futile attempt at counting.
Sonically, the influence of King Crimson looms large, albeit with a more contemporary spin. Poly-Math’s key skill is taking the jagged sounds and fractal shapes of the likes of Battles, Three Trapped Tigers and even Director’s Cut-era Fantomas, then deploying them in the context of looser, more jam-based bands like Dub Trio or ASIWYFA. Rarely does music this intricate feel as relaxed and natural, like it was born in a rehearsal room rather than under laboratory conditions.
Crucially, the breadth of Poly-Math’s sonic palette allows them to deftly sidestep the common pitfall of instrumental bands, whose songs can often feel like variations on an all too familiar theme. The first full track, “1258 | In The Sights of Mesopotamia“, ranges freely over its ten-minute runtime, roaming seamlessly from ragged stop-start uptempo rhythms into delicate and slightly spooky atmospherics and back again. At the other end of the scale, “Medicine | No Hell Like Home” is riff explosion that says everything it needs to say in ninety seconds.
There’s no denying that there is an awful lot to take in on House of Wisdom | We Are The Devil, but it is most certainly worth the effort. Whilst getting acquainted, it may be worth splitting it in half on that horizontal line I mentioned earlier to avoid being completely overwhelmed, but once you have at least a rough idea of where each song is heading, it is blatantly apparent that Poly-Math has produced a distinctive, cohesive and particularly compelling prog-math odyssey.