The most beautiful, soulful and operatic female voice you're likely to hear this year comes from a large, burly, bearded man in a bear mask.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a band called The Bunny The Bear, literally so named because the two core members are Matthew “The Bunny” Tybor and Chris “The Bear” Hutka, each of whom wear name-appropriate animal masks in their performances. This defiance of the expected continues to be the case even on their third album Stories, not because of the band’s enigmatic image but because “expectations” go out the window for a band that experiments with fusing as many genres and sub-genres as this band does.
Often categorized as “metal”, The Bunny The Bear’s publicity refers to them as “dance-infused rock innovators”, while the press has labeled them as every divergent genre from “metalcore” to “electropop” to “experimental rock” to “post-hardcore”. Just as punk gave birth to post-punk and its scion new wave (including the dance-oriented aspects thereof), punk’s other notable offspring of hardcore gave birth to post-hardcore which, under the supervisory masks of both The Bunny and The Bear, has re-embraced the dance beats and psychedelic exploits of its distant genre cousins. Well, that and a whole lot more.
This helps to explain why an album from an ostensible metal act would kick off with a slowly rising piano and synthesized string arrangement with gradually joining instruments forming a rich, symphonic sound that would fit perfectly on an epic movie soundtrack. As the intro on opener, “Eating Disorder”, reaches its crescendo, the audience is reminded that the metalcore influence was never abandoned. The thrashing guitars of Don White suddenly take over the soundscape as a chugging accompaniment to Tybor’s screamed vocals while the keyboards and drums continue their techno styled rhythms, keeping the music in a strange nexus of musical influences that somehow manage to mesh beautifully.
Had the complexity ended there, Stories would still have been a very worthy listen and a textbook model for genre-bending. At this point, however, the show is stolen by the band’s second vocalist, whose unexpected and soulful wail brings this (and every song on the album) to the next, unexpected stage. This voice is the most striking and exciting on the entire album and I immediately did research to find out who the woman was who contributed these guest vocals.
The problem was, these weren’t guest vocals, nor was this even a woman (though I challenge anyone to discern this just from listening). Surprisingly, this is the voice of Chris Hutka … “The Bear”. Yes, the big, burly, hairy, bearded bear of a man in the band has a voice so angelic it could make the Pope weep. Though often credited as providing the “Clean Vocals” (to Tybor’s “Screamed Vocals”), the word “clean” can’t come close to describing this unlikely voice. While Hutka sang in these registers on the duo’s previous albums, on Stories he is almost always a gender chameleon, looking like the guy who just stole your lunch money and singing like you wish your girlfriend could.
The second track, “In Like Flynn”, is among the album’s most infectious grooves. Featuring Hutka’s wail on the chorus that repeats just enough to make the song undeniably memorable but not so much that it becomes an annoying earworm, “In Like Flynn” is a wild blend of electronic pop and the nightmarish cries of The Bunny and addictive refrains from The Bear. On songs like this, Tybor’s screams often compete with, as opposed to accompany, Hutka’s melodic vocal stylings. This is a competition that Hutka repeatedly wins, however, on more introspective tracks like “Hey, Allie” and “What We’re Here For”. Hutka’s dynamic voice provides a soothing juxtaposition to Tybor’s. Bunny’s emo shouts of romantic and spiritual agony answered by Bear’s cacophonous assertion that “Everything’s gonna be all right” and “I will sing and shout if that’s what you ask for.”
Comparing “Hey, Allie” to the closing track “Sadie” shows another contrasting approach to similar subjects, that of a lost lady love. Instead of a defeated Tybor screaming about his loss, Hutka’s ironically operatic and melodic “Bear” voice rises to a pained, glass-shattering level for an engaging ballad of second chances. As on “Sadie”, Hutka’s voice harmonizes with Tybor’s less-screaming call on “It’s not always cold in Buffalo,” just as much as Tybor’s spars against Hutka’s on tracks like “The Frog”, which features hardcore, grunting shouts roped together by Hutka’s passionate banshee bellow.
While at times Stories evokes memories of Sexplosion-era Thrill Kill Kult, there are no joke songs to be heard here. Even when Tybor isn’t in complete angst, The Bunny The Bear still takes every note seriously. Replace Tybor’s dragon vocals with a low growl and many of these songs would fit on any of KMFDM’s more melodic albums. Then again, neither of those previous bands had a song like “Melody” on which an unquestionably soulful female voice plaintively cries, “Take this shell of the man I’ve become.” Even when accompanied (though never overtaken) by actual female backing vocalist Jen Palmer’s capable voice, Hutka’s singing still sounds like that of a talented Diva of the stage.
Hutka’s voice is far from the only asset to this diverse album that manages to blend its genres into a rich audio tapestry. However, Hutka’s standout performance is no accident or the case of a producer undermining the artist’s vision with an upstaging musical partner. Stories was produced by Don White and, The Bunny himself, Matthew Tybor (who is also the sole songwriter on each track). Hutka’s voice is utilized as something of a secret weapon that repeatedly adds soul to the contrary mix on each song. Even the opposites in style are beautifully reconciled by enhancing the dichotomies of voices as divergent as the blended genres here. The overall impact of The Bunny The Bear’s Stories is that of a well-unified whole that might alienate as many listeners as it entices, for many of the exact same reasons. “Expectations” be damned, repeated listening brings out the beauty of this unique album and proves that each song truly tells its own story.