The heavy quintet pushes hard into melody with a new album. (Photo: Poney’s current lineup, from left to right: Scott Miller, Samuel Brooks, Tyler Spatz, Pat Kohlbeck, and Ben Brooks. )
Poney, playing June 30 at Mickey’s Tavern, has seemingly always been in a state of gradual transformation. Since its founding in 2005, the band has mostly migrated from Wausau to Madison, and membership has changed often enough that each recording has featured a slightly different lineup. The band’s approach to hardcore, always charged with math-rock ambition and sludge-metal density, has gradually opened up to more tuneful songwriting. In fact, the music Poney drummer Ben Brooks and guitarist Tyler Spatz play now in the thrashing Madison punk band No Hoax sounds a lot more like Poney’s early work than does the band’s first album in five years, Pagan Nouveau, released this May.
Ben Brooks also provides Poney’s lead vocals from behind the kit, and when this was more of an overtly hardcore-influenced band, he delivered an urgent, scorched howl. His singing on Pagan Nouveau songs like “TV Teeth” and “Ideas And Places First” is, if anything, more burly and deep than it’s ever been, but this time he’s pushing a whole lot more melody through that gnarled tunnel. His voice is more about patient, overarching themes than about violent purges. There’s still a healthy amount of full-on screaming here, especially on the chorus of “Cube,” but it’s placed in a whole new context that makes it more dramatic.
The band as a whole has become brighter in tone and more interested in twisting arrangements and song structures. Spatz (who also contributes vocals), guitarist Scott Miller, and bassist Samuel Brooks start the title track with nimble, interweaving lines, before swerving into heavier riffs. Percussionist and synth player Pat Kohlbeck accents the song’s shifts with bongos and other hand percussion—an element that has helped to give a Poney distinctive sound throughout most of its sonic evolutions.
Poney has been interested in melody and intricacy for a while—2010’s album Seamyth was a prog-influenced concept album based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” But Kohlbeck, Spatz, and Ben Brooks set out to make a more melodic record when they wrote the songs for Pagan Nouveau. This is also the band’s first record without founding guitarist Brad Beilke, which inevitably made for a different writing process.
“Tyler and I were listening to a lot of Baroness, Cave In, and Torche among other things,” Ben Brooks says. “There was a lot of Lvl Up being listened to throughout the process as well, if I remember right. Mostly I think we wanted to challenge ourselves to write songs that could support melodies and some form of pop sensibility, which we’d never really messed with before. There are some melodies and a few hooks in the old material, but we made a conscious effort this time around to leave room for verses and choruses.”
Spatz initially joined Poney in 2011 on bass as the band was working on songs for 2013’s Rorschach, with Beilke and Miller leading much of the writing. He’s more integral to the songwriting on Pagan Nouveau.
“On this album the riffs were written using a loop pedal so that I could hear how two guitar parts and a bass part worked together without having people around to play them,” Spatz says.
The six tracks that resulted are still unapologetically heavy, but it’s a heaviness that comes as much from space and thoughtful pacing as it does from pummeling low end.