Philly bands—they've been everywhere the past few years. Kurt Vile. Hop Along. Modern Baseball. Waxahatchee. The War on Drugs. Sheer Mag. Beach Slang. Cayetana. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's not a hype mirage: A whole bunch of great rock 'n' roll bands have sprouted out of Philadelphia recently.
Purling Hiss singer, songwriter and guitarist Mike Polizze grew up about 20 minutes outside the city and moved into the Fishtown neighborhood a dozen years ago, back when rent was cheap and certain blocks were still a bit dodgy. He knows Philly is the latest indie-rock hotspot, even if he can't keep up with all the new bands.
"I'm in my own little bubble, sort of," he says in a telephone interview. "I don't know...I mean, all my friends are close by. I hear about other bands, though. It's nice."
In a way, this response is representative of Purling Hiss in a broader sense. Polizze has always operated in his own bubble, at least when it comes to his music. The band started as a solo endeavor, with Polizze self-recording towering psych-rock guitar jams in between his duties as a guitarist in Philly garage powerhouse Birds of Maya. In the years since the project's beginning, he has added bandmates and recorded in studios, but the project has never quite shaken off Polizze's singular vision.
The earliest Purling Hiss recordings are all over the map, with extended blues-rock choogles, 90-second noise experiments and skyscraping psych freakouts living together in brutally raw bliss. In less than a year, from late 2009 to late 2010, Polizze released three excellent albums (a self-titled, Hissteria and Public Service Announcement) that presented his aesthetic—killer riffs, shredding solos, buried vocals—through a thick layer of lo-fi grime.
By 2013, however, Purling Hiss was beginning to change. That year, the band released Water On Mars, their debut for Drag City Records that retained some of the unholy crunch, but not all. (There were even a couple of pretty acoustic songs.) And 2014's Weirdon is a different trip, too: spacier and more cerebral, with a wandering post-punk vibe. Polizze thinks it "got lost in the shuffle."
"That was the biggest jump that Purling Hiss made...going from the early home-recorded stuff that I did myself to making a Drag City record in a studio and not really knowing how it was gonna turn out," Polizze says. "I gave up a little bit of control, I feel like."
When it came time to record a follow-up, he looked to bridge the gap between his band's two eras. While touring behind Weirdon, he solidified his current version of Purling Hiss, with Ben Leaphart on drums and Dan Provenzano on bass, and when the trio got back from Europe, they were burned out but motivated, Polizze says.
"We were just on the road a lot and it was fun, so we were like, 'Let's make an album together, but let's take our time,'" he says.
Of course, "taking our time" means something different to the prolific Polizze than it does to most folks. The trio recorded basic tracks in two days, and then Polizze went back a few weeks later to add vocals and a few weeks after that to add more guitars. "We did it over the course of many months," he says. "Go in for a minute, then walk away from it and go back with fresh ears."
The result is High Bias, released by Drag City in October, and it absolutely accomplishes Polizze's goal of bringing together early and late-era Hiss. The fuzz from the old days is back (at least in part), but the songs themselves are well-crafted and melodic, a la the first two Drag City releases. There's a balance throughout that was missing from previous Purling Hiss albums, enjoyable as they were.
"That's kind of what I wanted to do: I wanted to encapsulate everything that's come before," Polizze says. "It's definitely a band type of album, we just kinda cranked the fuzz more."
Opening track "Fever" is a perfect example, with its loping vocal melody and the sparkle of its guitar parts dulled by distortion. "Pulsations" is a knotty punk-rock charger packed with tension and dipped in muck. In "Teddy's Servo Motors," Polizze slices and dices a droning groove with prickly guitars and wild-eyed chants. And the centerpiece of "3000 AD" is a billowing guitar riff that gives the song an ascendant feel.
Meanwhile, "Ostinato Musik" struts about as much as you'll ever hear Purling Hiss strut, and closing track "Everybody in the USA" stretches some timely civic paranoia past the 11-minute mark. "Follow You Around," however, might be Polizze's prettiest song yet, a lysergic sing-along complete with pop-friendly "bop-bop-bop" backing vocals and sunny guitar strum.
High Bias may be the total Purling Hiss package in one recording, but that doesn't mean Polizze is ready to rest on his laurels. Just like in the band's early days, he's still capturing and cataloguing song ideas every day; he says he has hundreds of recordings on his phone alone.
"I always feel like I have to play. I can't help it. But I'm also trying to find a balance and not flood the market with too much stuff," he says with a chuckle. "I just keep moving forward and hope that everything sticks with me."
Purling Hiss play Nov. 7 at The Hideout