Polly Urethane is the performance moniker of Amber Benton. She started performing under that name in 2021 and garnered some attention in certain Denver underground music circles for her performance art style shows in which she breaks the stage and audience barrier pretty much every show at this point. Her music combines classical music in her piano work and operatic vocals, electronic composition, musique concrète and industrial soundscaping. In 2021 Polly Urethane released her collaborative album Altruism with Rusty Steve who some may know from his work in futuristic hip-hop glam project N3PTUNE. It showcased a shared knack for pop songcraft that fused darkwave, hyperpop, industrial and R&B. Though Polly Urethane’s presentation can be confrontational the intention is to shake up expectations and arbitrary norms of the performer and audience relationship and is informed by a spirit of humor and the absurd in the intensity and mysterious aesthetic of the performance.
Listen to our interview with Polly Urethane on Bandcamp linked below and go see the band at Down in Denver Fest on Friday, 8/19/22 at 9:45 pm. For more information on the festival and on Polly Urethane visit one of the links beneath the interview.
Like many other musical projects A Place To Bury Strangers emerged from the early phase of the global pandemic a different band, certainly with a different membership other than guitarist and singer Oliver Ackermann. Following the highly experimental, even by APTBS standards, 2018 album Pinned the group probably had to have a different approach and lineup to avoid coasting into too familiar territory and musical habits. So we heard Hologram (2021) and what seemed more pop and garage rock in structure and sonics. Then the new full-length See Through You (2022) which felt like a reconciliation of Ackermann’s songwriting and soundcrafting instincts and channeling that through new creative filters and doing a sort of self-remix of a sound to expose a raw core that sometimes, if not for the obvious level of creative development, sounded like an early demo from a time before a band has settled on a sound that might appeal to some more conventionally-minded record label type. Then again APTBS doesn’t seem to have kowtowed that direction with any of its records. But whatever the motivations in assembling these sounds for the new record and whatever the methods for achieving these sounds both jagged and vulnerable how would this version of APTBS translate live.
For this leg of the tour Florida-based post-punk band Glove was to have opened the dates but something went sidewise in its camp and that left only the Denver-based openers Polly Urethane & Rusty Steve. It’s a relatively new musical entity though Polly Urethane at a minimum has garnered attention and praise and even recommendation in the local scene with unexpected people telling me I should check out her work and initially thinking it was Polyurethane of Zach Reini vintage, the Godflesh-esque industrial grind duo, upon listening to Polly Urethane’s 2021 EP Altruism with Rusty Steve, Altruism, it was obvious this was going to be something very different. The lush production of the EP and the emotionally refined and powerful vocals hit with greater dramatic effect and force live bolstered by Amber Benton decked out in a white, gauzy dress and long, black hair lending an aspect of one of those vengeful female spirits of Japanese folklore. When Benton crawled up top of some cases on the side of the stage and sang from there as well as going out into the crowd she broke the convention of the audience and performer barrier with a seeming fearlessness but also the intention of transgressing unspoken rules that protect nothing but a subconscious status quo.
The music combined with the theater of the performance was reminiscent of Zola Jesus and her own fusion of classical music and ethereal yet cathartic, darkly electronic pop. And Benton’s persona has to be compared to that of Diamanda Galás—that intensity and conviction perfected melded with a musical sophistication that helps to elevate aspects of the show some less charitable types that aren’t open to witnessing something different might call gimmicky to a realm of high art. At the beginning of the performance there was a projection of a the great, highly political collage artist Barbara Kruger—looked specifically like her 1990/2018 “Untitled (Questions)” piece—that calls into questions assumptions about society, challenging power and privilege. Seemed entirely appropriate to the current political climate even before the Supreme Court started to in full force dismantle civil rights in America. The performance seemed informed by the spirit of Kruger’s piece and if you take the time to give the EP a listen it’s a deeply personal and emotionally rich expression of the fallout of authoritarian influence on culture on the psyche. Really, an unforgettable performance that wasn’t the typical local band opening for someone with whom their music might fit.
From the flood of colored lights projected in shifting arrays and textures to the sheer controlled caustic sonics and brutally syncopated rhythms A Place to Bury Strangers unleashed its steady flow of electrifying sound and launched into “We’ve Come So Far” and didn’t much let up minus some breaks between songs and an unexpected and brilliant interlude toward the end of the set. It felt like being elevated into a different psychological space where your brain is stimulated in with a bright and dense energy pulsing with a driving momentum until we were let down at the end. The guitar and rhythm section just had that kind of rare synergy that is pretty much impossible to ignore with sounds that hit different parts of your listening spectrum.
Even songs you already know and have heard many times over several years had a heightened freshness like the band had learned to rediscover its music to deliver in a way that still felt exciting for them. Most bands probably do this especially after roughly two years of not being able to play live shows. Seeing the outfit going back to 2008 when it came through Denver and played the Larimer Lounge with its gloriously disorienting, scorching swaths of sound this performance felt like the trio was connecting to a new source of inspiration.
At one point toward the latter half of the set the band came off the stage to the center of the room where Ackermann had set up what looked like a self-contained sound generating device through which he could process vocals and his bandmates brought instruments to join in what certainly had to be a familiar experience for anyone who got to go to DIY spaces in America circa 2006-2012 akin to Ackermann’s own venue and studio in New York City, Death By Audio. In taking the show to people off stage in this way it was like the band recreated that experience in a more commercial venue thereby injecting the situation with some of that free form and free flowing spontaneous spirit and energy of the DIY world pre-Ghost Ship and pre-complete corporate/private equity firm takeover of the real estate market nationwide more or less ending that era completely into the foreseeable future. For that alone, this show felt exceptional and subversive. But of course there was more to come including the familiar strains of the always epic and enveloping “Ocean.” But the whole set came off like a scrubbing away of the mundane world and getting reconnected to one’s own raw emotions as expressed through this band that is inaccurately called a shoegaze band or noise rock or simply noise or dream pop or industrial. It’s all of that and beyond that. When the show was over that purging of regular life lingered for long afterward from two sets of deeply imaginative and creative music that directly challenged convention and that’s a gift no one should take for granted.
Partial Set List We’ve Come So Far (Transfixiation) You Are The One (Worship) My Head Is Bleeding (See Through You) Hold On Tight (See Through You) Everything Always Goes Wrong (Exploding Head) Let’s See Each Other (See Through You) Never Coming Back (Pinned) End of the Night (Hologram) In Your Heart (Exploding Head) I Live My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart (Exploding Head) Have You Ever Been In Love (new song) Ocean (s/t)