Bear in Heaven. It is a name at once both nonsensical and perfectly reasonable. It is a name steeped in ambiguity, simultaneously patently implausible and yet, in a certain, curious way, just feels right.
It is an appropriate name, then, for a project that, by all intents and purposes, shouldn’t make any sense. Indeed, that is exactly the thought that strikes the listener the first time Red Bloom of the Boom washes over their unsuspecting eardrums. “This won’t work.” It’s too disjointed, surely. It’s a mess. There are too many individual parts that just won’t fit together. These uncontrolled synths, these spacey guitars, this insistent drumming, they’re all pieces of separate puzzles, mixed up and left to soak up the fragile reverberations of Jon Philpot’s dreamy sighs. This won’t work.
But it does, you know. Give it time, give it space, and what initially seemed to be incoherent shards of ingenuity reveal themselves to be part of an altogether more elaborate picture. It is a mess, yes, but a magnificent one; a thought-provoking and at times spine-tingling mess of ever-evolving noise. These synths don’t have a life of their own, after all; they are carefully reined to allow the more subtle elements of Bear in Heaven’s soundscapes take centre stage as and when the band desires. So while opener “Bag of Bags” descends into a distorted fuzz, it serves to make the playful vocals and uninhibited guitars of “Slow Gold” all the more satisfying. Likewise, after the latter winds down its captivating breathlessness, the memory of what has come before amplifies the unprecedented poignancy of “Werewolf”‘s opening lamentations.
If we’re to talk of highlights, “Werewolf” itself is a good place to start. Some low-key drumming and restrained guitar are melded together by subtle synths, creating the perfect landscape for Philpot and Alejandra Deheza’s intriguing vocal interplay. And if there is any frustration that the band shy away from a seemingly inevitable eruption at the three-and-a-half minute mark, it is easily assuaged two minutes later when the climax eventually arrives, its potency only augmented by the earlier restraint. But in truth it is the interaction between Philpot and Deheza that gives the track its heart. The former’s cries of “Turn away from moonlight / Turn away and breathe out sorrow” carry an element of surprise, not only because of the unprecedented tenderness of the lyrics on an album which had previously, for all its qualities, carried little relatable emotion, but also because of the revelation that his impressive vocal abilities extend further than the, admittedly effective, airy whisper to which it had hitherto been restrained. There is a certain intimate quality to the Atlanta native’s vocals—with his every breath audible during “Werewolf”‘s intense conclusion, and “For Beauty”‘s drawn-out syllables seeming to highlight his slight, endearingly human vocal imperfections—that should ensure Bear in Heaven avoid the accusations of emotional deficiency sometimes levelled at the similarly unconventional Battles.
And unconventional is certainly what Bear in Heaven is. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the most straightforward few minutes of this debut LP, the dreamy “Shining and Free”, is reminiscent of Kid A-era Radiohead, with its meandering minimalist squelches ultimately forced out of the equation by Joe Stickney’s pounding drums. Stickney, perhaps, is the most valuable addition to the Bear in Heaven line-up in its evolution from Philpot’s solo project, his outstanding sticksmanship adding vibrancy to synth-heavy tracks such as “Bag of Bags” and “Arm’s Length”, which otherwise could have been bogged down under their own weight.
At times, however, Red Bloom of the Boom is a victim of its own successes. By placing arguably its three strongest tracks at its forefront, Bear in Heaven raises the listeners’ expectations of the album to a level which it does not always meet. On hearing the suffocated, robotic chants of “Fraternal Noon”, for instance, one anticipates an evolution similar to that of “Slow Gold”. When such variety fails to materialise—those suffocated, robotic chants continue to be just that for five of the track’s six minutes—disappointment is understandable. And it may only be because the preceding “Werewolf” is such a high point, but “Arm’s Length” feels like little more than a stop-gap, its dark, foreboding synth and malevolent guitar an interesting enough diversion, but ultimately uninspiring, particularly compared to what Red Bloom of the Boom has, by its halfway point, already shown Bear in Heaven capable of.
Make no mistake about it, though. In Red Bloom of the Boom, Bear in Heaven has created something special. It’s created an album of fantastic variety, opening with a splurge of cacophonous noise and ending with pared-down whispers, acoustic guitar, and cello. It’s an album that rewards repeated listens with subtle revelations in and amongst the distorted synths and guitars; an album that is at once both thought-provoking and exciting. What’s even more impressive is that it’s’ done so on its debut offering. Red Bloom of the Boom is by no means perfect, but that’s part of the appeal of it. The seven tracks here mark a transition from solo project to band, and the fact that it is at times stylistically rough-around-the-edges is befitting of that. Bear in Heaven is a challenging but rewarding musical venture, one that, with a new album already in the making, is a genuine cause for excitement.
// Notes from the Road
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