Review Summary: Dynamic in the true sense of the word, Polar Bear brings hope to listeners bored with strictly instrumental albums.
First of, I'd like to give the readers note that I'm not the biggest fan of (most) instrumental music. More often than not, I tend to put on such a CD and let it completely slip by me, with other things obviously much, much more important catching my attention, and something that was music a good 20 minutes ago has degraded to mere sounds playing in the background. I cannot seem to keep my attention to span longer than that with most of these records.
So then there is this Jazz outfit, called Polar Bear. (what's with bands reintroducing animals into their names nowadays?) They managed to keep my attention for the entire 42 minutes and 17 seconds that this record lasts, and this with the first listen. OK, so, what is this band doing differently or perhaps better than other instrumental bands?
I could tell you that this one hell of a ''dynamic'' record, and it very much is, but what does that mean?
For starters, Polar Bear is a jazz band that is lead by a drummer, Seb Rochford. Not just any drummer, Seb also plays drums for Acoustic Ladyland and several other projects. His range of influences is pretty wide, ranging from Napalm Death to Prince to Venetian Snares, next to a good amount of jazz influences.
the band also includes Tom Herbert on double bass, Pete Warham (these two are also members of Acoustic Ladyland) and Mark Lockheart on tenor saxophone, and Leafcutter John on electronics. (Next to that there are also some guest musicians on here.)
But how does a drummer lead a band, and does he really? The answers are both yes and no.
The rhythm section here is simply outstanding. (including the double bass) Seb and Tom are constantly laying down an extremely solid groove, the core of every song on this album. Many of the songs on this record have build-ups on them, where the bass and/or drums playing the same thing over and over again, giving the tenor sax players something of a blank canvas to do whatever they want. Seb has a distinctive role in this in that he adds to both. He manages to lock in perfectly with the bass but when a song starts building up he'll start adding notes and making his beats come more alive, playing more agressively. The role of the tenor Saxes is really interesting here as well. Sometimes they decide to work as a team, where they're both playing different leads over the rhythm. At other times one might lay down a repeating melody that becomes part of the rhythm, allowing the other to solo or set up a theme that comes and goes throughout the song.
A great example of this is "Beartown" , which is basically the first real song on the album, the first being an opener. The song starts out with a repeating bass line and hand clapping, and the tenor saxes being divided in two as one aids the rhythm section while the other plays the melody that is repeated in the song. The drums come in, and every time the main melody is recycled the drums get a bit more bite to them, dragging you into it, not allowing the listener to lose their attention. Then all of a sudden the tenor sax's just drop back allowing both the band and the listener some room to breathe. Slowly the tenor saxes start building up again, going in a call-and-respond style of crazy soloing. As a listener, this technique forces you to keep paying attention because there are so many shifts in one song.
The dynamics found within individual songs also fit the record as a whole. "Beartown" is this slow, simply grumpy sounding kind of song, whereas a song like "Touch The red Brick" recalls 50's style swing-jazz, with the rhythm section laying down danceable grooves over catchy tenor sax playing. In essence I found that these two moods kind of split the album, one side being more darker, brooding, the other, faster, and more swinging.
This does, however, manage to drag a little in some places, because the swinging songs are quite a bit shorter than the moodier ones. A nice twist to the record as well are the guest musicians on it, who add some diversity with different instruments, including guitar, violin, flutes and vocals (on the last track.)
What I find lacking here are the use of electronics. Leafcutter John might not be the most familiar name in electronica, but his presence here is almost redundant. Whatever he might add to a song would not be missed if it wasn't there, it never truly becomes part of the backbone of a song, and that's a shame. (except for the intro to Fluffy, which is completely made out of samples)
"Fluffy (I Want You)" is another weak point on the album. It's characterized by frantically played high pitched notes on the saxes, which are more annoying rather than experimental. combine this with Leafcutter John's prominent presence on this song, and it ends up as something of a lost backing track that Mike Patton was supposed to do vocals on, except that it never made it.
Other than these minor faults, ''Held On the Tips Of Fingers" is a great jazz release, and while I predict a lot of jazz fans already have this, those that don't, and people looking for a fresh (mostly) instrumental release might want to consider picking this up.