When an established band expands or changes their sound, one of the first questions that arises is “Why?” Listeners immediately formulate ideas and explanations to rationalize the moves and, unfortunately, that conversation and speculation can often overpower the actual music. So while the sonic change on Polar Bear Club’s Rise Records debut Death Chorus brought about such conversation, it would be a shame to let that overshadow the music, as this album represents the band’s strongest effort to date.
The conversations leading up to the release of Death Chorus mainly focused on one certain aspect: vocalist Jimmy Stadt’s new delivery. So much so that he released a statement to identify the reason behind the shift. And while the explanation was totally understandable (his voice simply changed), it was still a shock to the system of people who had come to love Stadt’s signature gritty vocals and found the new style generic and boring. But here’s the thing: his new vocal delivery is better. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of everything Polar Bear Club has done and I consider their last effort, Clash Battle Guilt Pride, a great record, but the vocals can get grating at times. The constant intensity of those vocals somewhat dims the impact that they carry. In his new delivery, Stadt is more able to vary the sound and emotion of his vocals, and it breathes new life into the band.
The record begins with the absolutely excellent “Blood Balloon”, and introduces the strongest element of Death Chorus: the choruses. This album is packed to the brim with dazzling guitar work and captivating vocal hooks and they launch the band into a completely different stratosphere. The aforementioned opener bursts out of the gates in typical pop-punk fashion, with pounding drums thundering along until the immense, bouncing chorus, complete with an enthralling vocal hook by Stadt that is nearly impossible to get out of your head. “Graph Paper Glory Days” follows in a similar, hook-laden fashion, while “For Show” showcases one of Stradt’s strongest vocal performances of his career. His delivery of the chorus “She don’t cry for show/Oh, oh, oh/Oblivious, oblivious to you/She don’t cry for show/Oh, oh, oh/Holding true/Just as true as you” is as enthralling as it is catchy. But the true high point on this record is the superb “WLWYCD”. It fully embraces the pop facet that the band seemed to be going for without drifting too far from their distinct sound. It is a perfect storm of pop sensibilities, angst, aggression, and Stadt’s best Stay What You Are-era Chris Conley impression on the cutting refrain of “Why live when you can die?” All in all, the track fully encapsulates everything that makes Death Chorus what it is.
There are only a couple of misses on the record, namely the strangely cheesy “Siouxsie Jeanne”, which seemingly wastes one of Stadt’s most powerful vocal performances, and “So I Buy”, which comes off as somewhat dull and uninspired in comparison with the rest of the album. But the record shakes off those few missteps and keeps powering along. Musically, while the band trades in a bit of the aggressiveness that they wielded in their previous records, Death Chorus is by no means completely void of it. The second half really turns up the intensity, with tracks like “Chicago Spring” and “Twang (Blister to Burn)” packing a punch that harkens back to that aggressive nature while simultaneously keeping with the more pop-oriented style that the record has. The real highlight of the album’s latter half comes on “Upstate Mosquito”. The intro of slow-burning chords erupts into a blistering whirlwind of a track, aided by Stadt’s soaring vocals, and shows that the band has not lost track of their roots.
Death Chorus does not immediately jump out as the great record that it is. Your thought process will probably run the gamut from “Wait, this doesn’t sound like a Polar Bear Club album” to “Wait, this might sound better than a Polar Bear Club album.” It is simultaneously a maturation and a re-invention of their sound. The vocal change may be jarring for fans at first, but it is certainly a step in the right direction for the band, one that has pushed them into creating the best record of their career.