Polar Bear – review

Bishopgate Institute, London
There's more melody in the grooves, although the band have not ditched their famous pensiveness

The seductively languid, faintly mournful personality of Polar Bear is evolving – albeit at their usual unhurried pace – and melody and rhythm are slowly changing places. Polar Bear's grooves sound steadily more melodic, and their melodies more economically cryptic, than when they were Mercury prize nominees back in 2005. Though they haven't lost their quiet authority and knack for patient storytelling, they sound as if more hook-oriented groups within their orbit – such as the now-disbanded Acoustic Ladyland and new stars Sons of Kemet, both involving Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford – have had a significant influence on how many notes they think a contemporary melody needs to have.

This Bishopsgate gig gave us a sneak preview of next year's new album. After a short solo set of sporadically orchestral power and occasional Bill Frisellian charm from Italian guitar-electronicist Stefano Pilia, Polar Bear opened up on a deep, whirring hum, stealthily advanced on by Mark Lockheart's sonorous tenor sax. Even at the slowest tempos, they always swing, and a deep groove soon emerged under Leafcutter John's thickening electronic textures of crunching metallic sounds and birdlike calls. A repeating four-note rising hook arose, explored in contrasting ways all around the lineup, from saxist Pete Wareham's bell-note honks to bassist Tom Herbert's clipped interventions. Some slow-drifting sax harmonising between Lockheart and Wareham gave way to an arrhythmically pumping one-note figure over a shifting pulse, with caged-monster roars from the electronics. These turned into a Jan Garbarek-like sax weave through eerie wind-sounds before the nearest thing to a regular song-shape appeared – a folksy horn theme on a groove, like a slow-motion jig. The crowd started boogieing to Wareham's punchy rock-sax phrasing as the energy picked up, although Polar Bear's famous pensiveness soon returned on Rochford's sumptuous Marianne, introduced by ringing cymbal tones, casual tom-tom hits and softly rumbling bass-drum sounds.

The quintet have occasionally been chastised as a band that have stopped growing, but this gig showed the opposite.

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John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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