“A caldera is the term for what’s left after a volcano erupts,” explains Polyrhythmics guitarist Ben Bloom. “It felt like an apropos album title considering where we are as a band right now. The last album was this explosion onto the scene for us, a statement of who we are and what we’re here to do, and this one feels like the simmering crater that comes into focus once all that smoke clears.”
Written in rural Oregon in the shadow of Mt. Hood (itself an active volcano), Caldera is a blistering declaration from a band that’s progressed beyond the sum of its influences to come fully into its own. Rich with bold brass and hypnotic percussion, the album showcases the instrumental eight-piece’s impossibly tight grooves and virtuosic musicianship as they tear through a singular blend of funk, soul, psychedelic rock, R&B, progressive jazz, and Afrobeat. It’s without a doubt their strongest work to date, merging the infectious power of their live show with a sleek and nuanced studio sophistication.
The record follows the Seattle band’s stellar third album, Octagon, which earned them tour dates around the country as well as plenty of critical acclaim. The Stranger dubbed Polyrhythmics a group to watch, hailing their “sophisticated slinkiness and expressive brassiness,” while WNCW praised their “modern afro-psycho-beat blend,” and the Seattle Times dubbed them “funk maestros.” The band was invited to perform live on influential Seattle NPR station KEXP, shared bills with everyone from Snarky Puppy to Booker T, and played massive festival stages including Bumbershoot, High Sierra, and Vancouver International Jazz Fest.
While Caldera builds off of the success of Octagon, it also marks the start of a new chapter for Polyrhythmics, one in which they embrace truly collaborative songwriting for the first time.
“We were starting to write as a group more, but with such a big band and all of our busy schedules, we realized that in order for everyone to really collaborate, we’d have to block off some time to do a writing session as a kind of retreat,” says Bloom. “Rather than have the tunes ready to go when we got together like on past records, this was an opportunity for us to get away to a place where we could write as a band and be totally removed from the distractions of life and work and home.”
The band settled on the idyllic Stargazer Farms outside of Portland, OR, for their writing retreat, but they ended up getting more than they bargained for when it came to isolation.
“It was the coldest snap of the winter and there was a couple feet of snow on the ground,” remembers saxophonist/flutist Art Brown. “We were kind of frozen in and we couldn’t leave. We just proceeded to write and arrange and record everything we were doing out there so that we could come back home to Seattle and make an album out of it later.”
At Stargazer, the band allowed themselves the freedom to create without expectation or pressure. There were no quotas or requirements. Their only intention was to spend four days in the most collaborative, inspired environment they could muster. Engineer/bassist Jason Gray set up his mobile recording gear in the farmhouse’s large communal room and left it accessible there 24 hours a day, which led to a variety of unexpected, off-the-cuff songwriting collaborations.
“Sometimes one or two members would be working something in there, and then another member would hear what they were doing and run over with his instrument,” Brown explains. “Other times, somebody would develop something on their own in a different room and bring it to the group to flesh out together in the communal space.”
Following the Stargazer writing sessions, the band spent a month listening back to what they’d come up with, whittling and refining their jams down into tight, punchy songs. Next, they headed into Gray’s Seattle studio and recorded nearly everything live as a band, just the way they’d been writing and experimenting out on the farm.
“It’s obviously more difficult technically and logistically to record an eight-piece band like this live all at once,” says Brown, “but we agreed that it was the only way to get the feel the way we wanted it. To really capture this music and that cohesive groove that’s essential to what we do, we had to all be listening to each other and playing together at the same time.”
Calling to mind at times everything from Antibalas and the Dap-Kings to The Meters and Fela Kuti, Caldera brims over with excitement and inventiveness. This is music you feel not just in your heart, but in every fiber of every muscle. It’s music you move to, music you lose yourself in. From the downtempo, Afrobeat trance of “Stargazer” to the triumphantly anthemic, high-octane pump-up funk of “Marshmallow Man,” Caldera is instrumental music at its best: emotional, evocative, mesmerizing. On “Cactus Blossom,” Polyrhythmics craft an eerie, retro gem straight out of a 70’s film score, while the trippy effects and wah-wah guitar of “Goldie’s Road” suggest a psychedelic journey (or perhaps a bad trip), and the shuffling “Vodka For My Goat” draws on Stax soul while hinting at BB King’s merger of the blues and jazz. It’s an eclectic collection, tied together by the melding of eight distinct musical voices coming together as a cohesive whole.
“I loved getting to make a full album with all eight guys in the band writing and performing together because it meant we got to explore all the little nooks and crannies that make up our group,” says Brown. “When one person writes a song by themselves, their influences can be easy to spot, but when it’s all eight of us coming together, it turns into something that’s really unique to this band. Each of these songs are their own little sound worlds.”
In the end, that’s what Polyrhythmics are all about: transporting you, body and soul, into the brilliant and vivid sonic landscapes they’ve crafted. With Caldera, they’ve launched a whole new era of the band, opening up an endless stream of collaborative possibilities. The smoke has cleared, and Polyrhythmics are just getting started.