Album Review: Pom Poko – Cheater

[Bella Union; 2021]

There is a sense of miraculous deconstruction in the work of Norwegian foursome Pom Poko – a drive to pull down the support structures of their influences and create something slathered in both art-punk ferocity and a welcome assortment of wickedly colorful pop impulses. It all feels so prickly and slightly out of phase with everything around it, possessing an endearingly boundless perspective on how to combine certain sounds for full impact while also knowing when all that should simply be torn down in favor of something without any recognizable parts. Similar in feel to the genre-hopping of Deerhoof or Xiu Xiu, the zigzagging branches of Pom Poko’s music are unconcerned with specific genres or the limitations they can present.

Their 2019 debut Birthday was built from outbursts of burly pop noise and lonesome lyrics, setting a stage both emotionally forceful and sweetly combustible. A product of the band’s tightly-wound instrumental expertise and singer Ragnhild Fangel’s insightful narratives, it was a taut and expressive collection of songs, filled with punk-lite eruptions of sustained energy and art-rock elasticity. This feeling of cheerful adaptation has carried over to their second record Cheater, and the band has further pushed onto the fringes of their collective inspirations. They embrace this ruptured pop chaos and expect their audience to do the same.

From the beginning of broken post-punk salvo “Cheater”, it is evident that the band is in full control of their wildly volatile instincts. The guitars are punchy and muscular, and Fangel’s childlike voice swoops across the track disconnected from all the pandemonium surrounding it. But rather than sounding disjointed, the band is able to tie all these loose musical ends together without pausing to take a breath. On “Like a Lady”, Fangel takes sure aim at misogynist histories, with her words laying out a caustic rebuttal of feminine expectations. The chorus is fairly rapturous, soaked in fuzz and revelling in the power of her voice to demolish anything in its path.

Beneath all the shuddering emotion, lanky guitarwork and vocal theatrics, Pom Poko are still fully in love with the sugary rush that comes from perfectly petulant pop music – roughed-up and rock-laden pop, but pop nonetheless. Their ability to link the squall of punk rock to the euphoria of pop music is as fascinating as it is revelatory. “My Candidacy” swaggers and churns like classic Pixies while “Look” is propelled by some truly ferocious distortion. Even here, though, their adoration of a good melody never falls to the wayside. There is plenty of volume and a good stomp that you can feel in your bones, but there is also a slickly constructed musical framework where their more pop-oriented impulses can run with a reckless abandon.

They possess a knack for mixing denser, craggier material with catchy pop infrastructures. A great example is how the band doles out wiry guitar riffs atop a throbbing fuzz-enrobed pop-rock cacophony on “Andy Go to School”; the foundation of the track is engineered to elicit unconscious bodily movement while the more abrasive edges are designed to inflict brief bouts of whiplash. Album closer “Body Level” dials back the noise a bit, finding a way for us to exit the record on a somewhat more measured note – though there’s still more than enough momentum here to keep your musical buzz going for a few more hours.

Cheater finds Pom Poko stretching and redefining their own unique blend of mangled aesthetics and creating a ruptured post-punk-pop world that’ll leave you staggered and anxious for just one more song.