Polaris‘s debut record, The Mortal Coil (2017) was the first album I ever reviewed for Heavy Blog. While my life remains largely unchanged since then, a lot of has happened for the band in the interim. At the time of their debut, the Sydney act were an undeniable local act who were quickly outgrowing the Australian scene by chewing up support slots left, right and center. Since then, they’ve become a formidable, international touring act in their own right (apparently someone finally succeeded at getting them in front of an Architects crowd) and are now comfortably selling out the venues they used to open back home. All this is to say that The Death of Me has a lot riding on it. Yet, although it’s a remarkable enough effort to avoid the dreaded (and largely mythical) “sophomore slump”, it’s a less convincing follow-up than many might have expected.
There’s still no two ways about it, Polaris still sound more or less exactly like Architects. The similarity might actually be more of a boon than a hindrance, in The Death of Me‘s case. For all the emotionality behind it and the seemingly universal acclaim thrown its way, Holy Hell (2018) was a largely “Architects by numbers” affair, with the added variation shown by Polaris on their second outing only further revealing just how one-dimensional an album it really was. Yet, although The Death of Me‘s stylistic breadth is one of its biggest strengths, it’s also one of its greatest hindrances.
In spite of everything in between, The Death of Me is very much an album of two parts: the brutal and the melodic; and only very rarely the twain shall meet. Some of the album’s best material comes from when the band fully commit to a single aspect of their sound. The appropriately named “Landmine” is probably the heaviest song Polaris have come up with to date, and it’s one which recalls many of The Mortal Coil‘s standout moments, such as “Collapse” and “Lucid”, and its great to see the band hanging onto the more abrasive aspects of their sound despite their elevated profile. On the other end of the spectrum is lead single “Masochist”. At first, the song may come off as a tad contrived, especially with its (over)dramatic video clip in tow. The song is expertly crafted, however, with its at-first jarring refrain proving ultimately irresistible. It’s a big moment for Polaris and one you can expect to see closing out their shows for years to come.
Highlights also result from those moments when Polaris strike the balance between melody and brutality just right. Opener “Pray for Rain” sees the band aping Holy Hell‘s “Death is Not Defeat” pretty shamelessly. Yet, as with most of the album’s Architects comparisons, Polaris actually manage to push the premise that little bit further, resulting in something more varied and invigorating than their (obvious) inspiration (although the forcing of “op-tim-ism” into the intro’s meter remains jarring each time; especially when “hope” really would have worked much better). Similar moments of balance are few and far between, however. The early half of the album awkwardly alternates between its harder and softer moments and, while more of a balance is sought in its later half, the results often fail to invoke the strengths of either.
The melodic mastery shown on The Mortal Coil and, especially, 2016’s The Guilt & The Grief EP, has been largely reduced on The Death of Me to simply injecting spates of bassist Jake Steinhauser’s severely processed vocals. It’s an effect that distinctly recalls The Amity Affliction‘s Ahren Stringer, and it would be a real shame to see Polaris follow a similar path given all the extra elements they have at their disposal. The effect is compounded by the relative absence of lead guitarist Ryan Siew, who – even if frontman Jamie Hails steals the spotlight in the live setting – has undoubtedly proved MVP on all of Polaris’s previous outings. Although Siew still shows up for a few solos here and there, most notably on “Landmine” and the very Ocean Grove sounding “Vegabond”, his contributions aren’t as spectacular as they have been in the past he is all but missing in action elsewhere.
The songs on the album’s second half take wider swings than its first, but they also regularly miss the mark. “Above My Head” is an ambitious track, which sees a rare instance Siew taking the lead in manner reminiscent of the softer material on Periphery‘s Select Difficulty (2016). It’s a largely succesful composition, and more ambitious tracks like it would have been welcome throughout the record. Nevertheless, that extra spark which ignited Polaris’s earlier material. Crooner “Martyr (Waves)” feels utterly contrived and the albums remaining two tracks come across as both unremarkable and undercooked. Perhaps it’s an unfair case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, or perhaps some of the material on The Death of Me just needed a bit more refinement and a touch less calculation. The album probably would have been more effective had its strongest offerings been released as a five-or-six track EP – perhaps comprised of its first half, with the pounding “Creatures of Habit” replacing lackluster hardcore single “Hypermania”, and perhaps “Above My Head” in place of “Vegabond” – which would have also allowed for greater development of its weaker material.
The Death of Me is the sound of a band admirably reaching toward more expansive territory, only to often find themselves fully extended and coming up (just) short. It’s by no means a letdown. However, it also winds up feeling less than the sum of its parts and, for the first time, begins to reveal some of the cracks in Polaris’s compositional facade. Nevertheless, it will likely turn out to be a transitional record in rising superstars’ catelogue, and it contains more than enough successful moments to see them through to the next stage of their evolution. When it’s good, The Death of Me is really good, and its strongest material should put every band Polaris are currently sub-headlining firmly on notice.