The appeal of Seattle’s Minus the Bear has always lain with the fact that the band’s music has managed to be both steadfastly loyal to the past and incredibly futuristic. Albums like 2002’s Highly Refined Pirates, Menos el Oso from 2005, and last year’s stopgap compilation Acoustics showed off the group’s brand of mathy post-emo rock. With their intricately-layered guitars, complex rhythms, and prominent drums, Minus the Bear seemed heavily indebted to mid-‘90s artists like Dismemberment Plan, Sunny Day Real Estate, and American Football. However, despite being associated with the post-grunge era, Minus the Bear’s music, particularly 2007’s Planet of Ice, has also served as a good predictor of new trends in rock. The quintet’s heavy use of Talking Heads-style synths with angular post-punk swagger has foreshadowed the work of groups like Editors, Mew, and Suckers.
Fans of Minus the Bear will be pleased to hear the group’s latest effort, OMNI, which finds the band barely altering the electronicky prog-pop formula it used on previous albums. While they may no longer sound as cutting edge or ahead-of-their-time as they once were, Minus the Bear is still a talented ensemble and OMNI, at its many high points, showcases all of the band’s cylinders churning away at full power.
Most of the album’s songs start out with a melodically-simple, rhythmically-complex guitar or synth riff. Layers of guitar and keyboard are gradually added to the mix, creating a head-nodding, symphonic groove. Jake Snider’s lighter-than-air vocal melodies are just icing on this infectious cake of rock. OMNI features more polished production, tighter hooks, and better songwriting than its predecessors.
“Excuses” begins with a descending guitar phrase under a tinkling of chimes. Like a slow-moving train, the song chugs along picking up passengers in the form of guitar and keyboard layers. When Snider croons the first lines of the song’s chorus and the drums, guitar, bass, and keys break out in unison into an angular, melancholic post-punk whirlwind, it marks the most beautifully earnest moment on record for Minus the Bear. “Fooled by the Night” finds the band treading on post-rock territory. The song begins with two-minutes of swirling, atmospheric organ interrupted by psychedelic synthesizer accents. Then, suddenly, drums and bass ignite the band at full force into a poppy, danceable rock conflagration. Lyrically, “Fooled by the Night” features some of Minus the Bear’s most direct, emotionally-jarring lyrics: “He put the rap music on / That music led her astray / Touching her just like he should / She was headed that way.” OMNI‘s best song is “Into the Mirror”, which uses a jutting, staccato keyboard riff as the foundation from which the band makes perfect use, as is their trademark, of space and silence, painting the sonic landscape with strata of guitar and keys that disappear as often as they appear. It’s Minus the Bear at their most playful and majestic.
While, on the whole, OMNI is a more realized work than the band’s previous LPs, there are several chinks in its steely armor. For the most, the album shows Minus the Bear tinkering very little with the sound it crafted on past releases. However, in the few instances on OMNI when the group does step away from its tried-and-true formula, the result features less forward-thinking experimentation and, instead, contains a larger does of ‘90s alt rock. During these moments, for the first time, the group sounds dated, like some leftover remnant of a time when emo gods roamed the earth. “Summer Angel” starts out strong with an angular power-punk onslaught but relies too heavily on muscular grunge guitar riffage that sounds like it was unleashed from a can of Pabst Blue indie rock circa 1995. “The Thief”, while chock full of great polyrhythmic drumming, overuses a lead guitar line that sounds a little too much like it came from Dave Matthews’ discard pile.
The other flaw in OMNI is that the delightful and refreshing self-deprecation that Minus the Bear previously displayed, with song titles like “Hey, Wanna Throw Up?”, “Booyah Achieved”, and “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!”, seems to have been cut from the album budget—a potential warning sign of hard times to come.
These two qualms, while they aren’t insignificant, certainly don’t ruin OMNI and it is still mostly a triumph. In an age of cheap pop thrills, Minus the Bear continue to craft thoughtful, intelligent rock, even if their tongues are no longer planted firmly in their cheeks.
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// Notes from the Road
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