2 Dec 2023

Review: Aquaries by PollyHill & Samara Alofa

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 2 December 2023

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PollyHill & Samara Alofa

Photo: Nicola Sanford

PollyHill is best known as an MC, but her solo work has shown a knack for innovative, dynamic production, and on her latest project, steps away from the mic on six of its eight tracks, leaving vocals to Samara Alofa.

Alofa is a singer known for progressive, semi-improvisational RnB, and together the pair have carved out their own territory, alternately smooth and spiky, and heavy with social subtext.

Alofa made her debut in 2020 with an album called Earth Punk!, on which she sang and played every instrument, not to mention producing and even mastering. It was a release that grabbed the attention of local music fans, and their live performances were equally commanding. I saw Alofa perform at Wine Cellar, enlisting their friend to make up a song with her on the spot, and, despite the friend’s reluctance, it was spellbinding. 

Paloma Schneideman has a background in filmmaking and music video direction, and since 2020 has released a string of EPs and singles as PollyHill, some of them with local heavyweights like Church, and Dera Meelan. 

In 2021 she released a single with Alofa, and the friends and flatmates have clearly been percolating since then, because their collaborative album Aquaries shows a unified, distinct vision.

Last year PollyHill released a single called ‘Static’, which she said was about “going home, after socialising, and you take your ‘skin’ off, and you’re not making yourself more palatable for anyone, and you’re left alone with your truest self”. 

There are echoes of this in Aquaries, which Alofa and Schneideman say is loosely about the concept of a “domesticated alien, who struggles to assimilate”. This obviously evokes ideas around ‘othering’, and informs the name of the album, which holds at least three layers of meaning if you say it out loud. 

They state “queer joy” as another theme, and that’s most explicit on ‘Queerbait’. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means hinting at same-sex romance without actually depicting it, tackled here with tongue-in-cheek, on the album’s most upbeat cut. 

That song has one of just two verses from PollyHill on this project, who chose to focus on production. A recent interview with Sniffers at the pair’s flat mentions Björk playing on the stereo, and Schneideman has mentioned Venezuelan producer Arca as an influence too, both good reference points for the type of acid-tinged sound design at work here.

On ‘Queerbait’ I became fascinated with a jittered, mutant hi-hat, and listening to ‘Home’ - a towering slowburn Schneideman correctly identifies as the album’s centrepiece - I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if I was hearing a car’s turning indicator used as percussion.  

Alofa meanwhile is even more otherworldly than usual, with supreme control of her instrument. Together the pair have carved out their own sonic space, deliberately shunning anything too comfortable in favour of something that’s just theirs.