As a whole, 2011 has been a superb year for pop-punk of all shades. The Wonder Years and Fireworks have led the charge with their most recent albums, and some of the harder-edged groups have put out excellent records as well: Heeartsounds’ Drifter is a particular standout from this year. The genre’s standards have been raised and met repeatedly over the last few years, and Polar Bear Club find themselves returning to a changed landscape.
However, the band are well known for evolving their sound to fit with changing times, so as a follow-up to 2009’s Chasing Hamburg, it has been hotly anticipated, and rightly so. They don’t waste much time in getting things going either: “Pawner” is one of the most immediate opening tracks of the year, and a clear step up from much of their earlier material. They’ve made small changes, but they make a big difference; for one thing Clash Battle Guilt Pride seems to flow relatively more smoothly than its predecessor did. Almost as though the band want to prove this point straight away, the opener segues into “Killin It” without pausing for breath, and the album barely lets up from there on in.
Clash Battle Guilt Pride is full of razor-sharp, hardcore-tinged pop-punk, sometimes closer to indie-rock than anything else. The album is driven by the impassioned vocals of frontman Jimmy Stadt, whose performance on the record as a whole can basically be described as faultless. Its eleven songs are immediate and anthemic, informed by the group’s experiences on the road over the last year-and-a-half. The lyrics are genuinely fantastic in places as well; “Bottled Wind” is full of impressive couplets, while rabble-rousing penultimate track “Religion on the Radio” opens with some of the best lines of the year: “I’ve been looking around at abandoned cars on the side of the highway, asking myself, ‘are they a metaphor for lack of drive or dead battery eyes?'”
Some slightly more restrained moments are on offer as well. The mid-tempo, riff-heavy “Slow Roam” arrives at a crucial point in the album, allowing the listener some brief respite after being treated to a slew of up-tempo tracks, and is perhaps the poppiest moment on the record, although “My Best Days” could put forward just as solid a challenge for that position. They fit into the wider arc of the record extremely well. There’s no doubt about it: these guys have all the essentials nailed down. Album pacing, songcraft and the all-important killer chorus – all of these aspects have been considerably improved on since last time out.
Polar Bear Club end their third album just as confidently as they started it, and as a result, “3/4 Tango” is one of the finest closing songs of the year. It’s a narrative song that contains the kind of lyrics they’re not usually known for writing, but while it marks a departure for the band in that respect, it ticks all the right boxes, ending the album on the highest of high notes. They say third time’s the charm; in the case of Clash Battle Guilt Pride, the saying rings true.