POLEMICIST – Return of the Sophist (2021)REVIEW

So I would take up those poems of theirs which it seemed to me they had worked on the most, and I would ask them thoroughly what they meant, so that I might also learn something from them at the same time. I am ashamed to tell you the truth, men; nevertheless, it must be said. Almost everyone present, so to speak, would have spoken better than the poets did about the poetry that they themselves had made.” Plato, Apology

ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ | An unusual man by all accounts — Ambitious, sociable, charismatic, gaunt, and nothing short of passionate at a basal level of intellectual engagement the pieces of Chaerephon of Sphettus that survive in literature and cobbled-together neo history fragmentation depict him almost as if a vampyric creature or oddity to the eyes and ears of the Peloponnesian War veterans he’d commiserated with, the Thirty Tyrants who’d exiled him, and most famously to the court of peers overseeing the trial of his longtime friend and confidant Socrates for heresy and rabble-rousing. We can scour over Xenophon for confirmation of Platonic accounts, we can skim through Aristophanes for character witness and (with a grain of salt) begin to see the fellow as an imp from most angles and certainly the catalyst-in-exile for the experiment that’d lead to Socrates’ historic trial and death. Scholars persist in unveiling the infamous visit of Chaerephon to the Oracle of Delphi as viable and likely a true event, yet, there is some value in the refreshingly sceptic works of folks like Mario Montuori who’ve examined at length the true character and nature of Socrates through Plato’s inconsistent eyes, and the confounding variable of this broadly varying reputation of Chaerephon himself, dependent on democratic allegiances at the time. I posit from this unique angle, gazing upon the dark uncertainty of these figures, that we might find the seedling of thought that fueled the dramatic narrative drawn by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based progressive melodic black metal duo Polemicist in approach of their sophomore full-length album, ‘Return of the Sophist‘. The void is filled with high-intellectual wonderment as they present a surprisingly compact yet expressive tragedian vision of the procurement of the catalyst — Chaerephon’s sojourn in exile to the Oracle at Delphi, the call-and-response of what would be historic damnation of this shadow-animus Socrates, whom has long inspired the pursuits of those who would build, and bury, western civilization.

There is absolutely no pleasure felt in carrying important, soul-stirring knowledge that one cannot share without qualifier and precursor. It becomes a sickening, sweaty ball of hellish encumbrance and nausea in the belly of the educated and resonantly inspired. I would posit the sort of musician who can relate would certainly pick philosophy as their purge for this reason, and their first wretches as meditations upon Nietzsche and Socrates to ease the barrier of entry down to those with at least one or two years of college education. That said, Polemicist‘s debut full-length ‘Zarathustrian Impressions‘ (2019) was admirably dense in presentation, clearly influenced by classicist Scandinavian melodic black metal artistry and sophisticated melodic development, which they’d elongated via what I’d consider guitar work that built from a more ‘atmospheric’ origin of interest. In this sense the main reason that debut album missed my ear at the time was its lack of direct heavy metal aplomb, instead opting for the stair-climbing eddy of ‘A Velvet Creation’ that’d admittedly needed more of a chance to roil and stew than I’d afforded it. Though there are some limitations to the drum performances on that first album, and each lacks a unique bass guitar voicing that could elevate all works, Polemicist are as impressive in hindsight of a few years as they are today on this fine second album. The question is, how much context do you need to know what is going on? And, does the significance of these events depicted land with more than one or two degrees of importance -if- there is no conversation to supplement its vision?

The timbre with which Polemicist present themselves ensures the listener (with concerted interest in the subject matter) can discern both the lyrics and adjacent melodic guidance in full. This means the vocals are a blend of spoken-sung performances that modulate between distorted rasp and slightly deeper enunciation. This comes with several instances of clean-sung melodicism, a chorale from Pendath of Mefitis (whom also provides drums, and keyboards) that functions as a sort of Chorus within a Greek tragedian play format which I believe is the right way to approach the experience if we can find our parable within the delight of the greater presentation. For the sake of always grasping the narrative, the guitars are comparatively subdued but constantly active — Soaring in bi-directional swells, presenting extended melodic throngs, and perhaps too subtly pocketing the progressive nature of their richly lain instrumentation. It will be too “light” of a melodic black/death metal album for some by virtue of verbose lyrical approach and not enough of a “guitar album” for they who expect outright gratification within the “melodic black” template of the past. The payoff of the arrangements, specifically the interplay of the dual rhythm guitar dynamic and their focus on extended lead runs, comes with a unique atmospheric tendency akin to cloudy and emotional revelation as well as deeply pensive self-examination. “Epistemology Reduced to Absurdity” is perhaps the first peak of instrumental prowess beyond that of ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’ which no seriously engaged listener could overlook upon first listen and the finest place to start looking for the keystone to the larger rhythmic language of Polemicist‘s guitarists.

We know the language of their knack, we have some vague context of the rhetoric, and these talented musicians have done a fine job of communicating through clear and expressive sound. So, does the concept land? If not for the title of ‘Return of the Sophist’ it might be easy to view the greater lyrical theme as a conveyance of tragedian mythos which lines up well with the Greek religious symbolism in some of the pieces (“The Cave of Gaia”) but we must view the “sophist” as an ill-natured occupation, and Socrates as tricked into his tour of intellectual battery upon influential ‘great’ men of Athens by the word of Chaerephon and the “voice of the Gods” provided by the Oracle, Pythia. In the cover art the oracle is depicted with a great crack beneath her feet, a ghostly face which seems to be Socrates sits to her right and what seems to be the sacrifice of a goat on her left. My mind fills in the blanks in such a way that gives this album’s narrative layers of intrigue that may be extraneous, mind you. The major point being that the context we invent alongside what is plain to see ultimately makes for an album that can be enjoyed on many levels, be it examinations of the nature of Pythia or further reading on sophistry in the context of Plato’s Gorgias, the doors are opened therein and in this context we don’t need to “get it” up front and further exploration of related literature is part of the greater appeal of the experience and subject matter.

At this point I’ve hardly referenced other musical acts because I believe Polemicist are doing something familiar in an unfamiliar way. A beauteous ‘epic’ sort of melodic black metal experience doesn’t necessarily translate well enough within a half hour length, though, and I think this might be the only oversight on the part of the composers. The experience is not misshapen but at just about ~31 minutes meaningful immersion can only realistically be achieved through sessions of repeated listening. We almost get there within the three part “The Delphic Temple” piece but “Hemlock” is too much of a jolt into epilogue which might’ve been buffered by an intermediary step down, there is certainly room within the perceived narrative. If I can approach ‘Return of the Sophist’ purely as a fan of melodic black metal, it is a delight with shades of Dawn‘s layered phrasing puzzled into droning, night-shaded progressive death metal adjacent movements not unlike some of the touches that labelmates Mefitis bring to their own refinement; Otherwise, it is a half hour that breezes through its scenery with purpose and pleasure while depicting its own emergence from a cave-like state unto acceptance of death within the light. If Polemicist manage to stay this engaged with their conceptually rich vision(s) while holding fast to these high standards of ornate rhythmic riffcraft, I can only image how much more idiosyncratic their sound might become through future releases. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (79/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
Info:
ARTIST:POLEMICIST
TITLE:Return of the Sophist
TYPE:LP
LABEL(S):Hessian Firm
RELEASE DATE:June 25th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Progressive Black/Death Metal,
Melodic Black Metal

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