Dance music is driven by rhythm; this isn’t observation, it is undisputed fact. Without rhythm, there is no dance. To be more specific, dance music is driven by beats; dance music is also driven by bass. They form the core of every disco, house, techno, hip-hop or trance single you’ve ever heard, and they will continue to do so, until the end of time. There are exceptions, such as “When Doves Cry,” which is a bass-less creature, and some microhouse, which seems to be only beats, and rather spare ones at that. But the principles are still there, whether heavily emphasized or not. Still, some dance music is overbearing, bludgeoning with its beats and bass, and just about everyone who reads this site can probably testify to being in a bar or club at some point in time, with sub-woofers that could kill a man, disturbing bowels and causing drinks to ripple. If you like the music, it’s not so much a problem, but even so, one begins to crave respite from jackhammer bass, even if temporary.
Kelley Polar is driven by rhythm. Yet, more importantly, Kelley Polar is driven by melody. A Julliard-trained violist, Polar takes an ethereal, delicate approach to his form of dance music. On his debut, Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens, buoyant disco beats and swooning strings ambled side by side, forming a curiously beautiful combination of rhythm and grace. It made a small splash upon its release, and for good reason—it’s one of the most creative dance records to have been released this decade. Follow-up I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling has much in common, sonically, though while its predecessor still felt very much at home in the club, this record sets its sights on the cosmos.
So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here—this is a dance album. And it’s a bloody amazing one at that. But Polar has become quite comfortable with creating diversions away from rhythmic euphoria, toward electro-prog dreamscapes. “Zeno of Elea” is a soft and ambient meditation, with Polar’s own voice layering on top of its multi-tracked self. “A Dream In Three Parts (On Themes By Enesco)” has an elegant classicism, bolstered by sci-fi synths, and opener “A Feeling of the All-Thing,” while very much a dance track, begins with a vocoder new age mantra: “At the top of the mountain, there is a special sensation at the center of your body, and you can feel the earth moving underneath your feet.”
Then the beats come in.
When Polar lets the rhythm set a song’s course, it’s never overbearing or heavy. While not quite resorting to the “When Doves Cry” approach of minimizing, or eliminating bass, his songs are more symphonic and glimmering than pounding or flickering. In single “Chrysanthemum,” lightly echoing snares snap and Rhodes piano gently ring, a one-note bassline pulsates and synth phases in and out, while Polar’s breathy voice, sort of like a cross between Patrick Wolf and The The’s Matt Johnson, but prettier, whispers out a gentle lead. “Entropy Reigns (In the Celestial City)” is a bit more in line with his prior album’s standouts, in that it’s a catchy and sparkling electro track that brings both accessibility and sublimity to the dancefloor, with a back-and-forth male/female exchange and a New Order reference just for fun (“tell me now, how does it feel?“). “Rosenband” is a rare example of Polar putting more boost behind the bass, yet still leaves plenty of breathing room, allowing for gorgeous, glossy synths to fill in with melodic wonder. With “We Live In An Expanding Universe,” Polar fuses a robotic beat with an even slinkier bassline for something truly sexy, and “Sea of Sine Waves” pops and throbs with glorious ’80s indulgence.
Even after hammering out some of his best dance tracks to date, Kelley Polar returns to an ambient-prog sort of weirdness with “In Paradisum.” Synthesizers ascend and twist, squelch and throb, vocoders spinning in surround sound, as if Polar is attempting to replicate the escalator ride to heaven. Strange, certainly, but an interesting attempt nonetheless. Whether giving in to his avant garde impulses or just cracking out a perfect dance single, Kelley Polar sets out to help you find that special sensation within the center of your body, and, when he’s at his peak, you may find that earth underneath your feet just moved a little.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.