Despite a somewhat wimpy opening, Polarized is the best of the Andy B. Franck fronted Ivanhoe records, as well as the last he would participate in. Not to mention the last before the rather substantial studio hiatus taken by the Germans between 1997 and their fourth full-length in 2005. Here, just about everything the band had worked towards with Visions and Reality and its successor comes to fruition and they've penned some genuinely catchy songs. Hell, there are 3-4 tracks here that I'd consider among the best in their discography, so memorable are the chorus sequences and so accessible and gleaming their melodies. I'm not sure if the change in guitarists had much to do with the increase in quality; Achim Welsch plays with a comparable style to Chuck Schuler, but clearly this was Franck's magic moment before moving on to the better known Symphorce and Brainstorm.
As mentioned, Polarized starts off a bit slow with some forgettable acoustic guitars, but it soon develops into something more emotionally effecting as we hear just how Franck's range has bloomed into this glorious pastiche of Ray Alder, Geoff Tate and James LaBrie. Once "Souls of Fire" arrives, though, we're treated to this intense, textured and warm application of his tone against the escalating guitars; and this was already proving to be the best Ivanhoe track to date, with fantastic drumming, glittering clean guitars over the bridge and Franck all over the place with a schizoid array of screams and diabolic barks along with his more soothing lines. But this is not even the strongest track here: the bass driven, uplifting grooves and explosive chorus of "Hollow" are remarkable (with a counter vocal line reminiscent of Fates Warning's "Pale Fire") and the more thundering "Whipping the Flies" with a chorus so epic that I just want to enlist in the Franck house staff and serve the man grapes and dates while I fan him with palm leaves. In a totally servile and PLATONIC way, you gutter-minds. What can I say? I am a massive nerd for such dramatic, structured and memorable chorus sequences.
There's more beyond this triad to recommend, from the disco-like jitters that support the wacky lead in "Sunlight", the glorious "Glass on Skin" with its electro elements, or the atmospheric, muscular swagger of "Wasted Time", but in reality just about the whole album kicks ass with the exception of a chunk of opener "Lonelies" and the almost obligatory piano power ballad "When I'm Old" that caps off the disc; and even here, Franck shines. Come to think of it, I think this guy sounds better here than on most of the more aggressive Brainstorm records (my exposure to Symphorce has been more limited), but the whole band gets a chance to shine. Polarized does continue Ivanhoe's reluctance to indulge in the flashy jamming of Dream Theater, preferring instead to approach the music with a more pop-like structure, but I can hardly fault them for its accessibility and general lack of complexity when the results are this strong. Alongside the more recent Lifeline (2008), this album represents some of their strongest writing, and it's one of the first I'd recommend to those interested in checking out their catalog. The production is superb.
Verdict: Win [8/10] (the fire and the floooooooooood)