Review Summary: Menos El Oso was some great foreplay, but this is the pure ear sex that cooks you breakfast afterwards. Powerful, danceable, chillaxed, catchy, complex, trancendent, epic, and a whole bunch of other stupid cliches. Near-masterpiece.
Minus The Bear are pretty much a musical island unto themselves. In their short five years of existence, MTB have crafted a sound that can clearly be called their own. Their quirky mix of of indie, rock, groove, ambience, clever pop sensibilities, and ridiculous technical chops gives them a sound that is extremely original and difficult not to like. They have an uncanny knack for producing music that anyone can listen to while remaining quite complex and musically interesting throughout. Their prior record, Menos El Oso
(I don't count that abortion of a remix album) was an album that exuded a laid-back, chilled-out sound that took a while to grow on some. There were some rockers on there too, but it more often took a backseat to the vibe-out songs like "El Torrente" and "Memphis & 53rd", a move criticized by many who liked the more raw, immediate approach the band took with their first album Highly Refined Pirates
. Their interim EP, We Make Beer Commercials Like This
, more or less combined the two approaches to great effect, despite the short length. But generally speaking, MTB's had a small problem making their individual songs stand out from their others, being relegated by some as "that band with the tapping and stuff with that song that goes "deet, deet, deet-deet".
Those aforementioned individuals are going to have a hard time sticking that criticism on Planet Of Ice
. Easily their most musically varied work to date, this record has MTB taking more than a few risks while retaining an amazing flow and cohesiveness as well as keeping their core sound intact. The songs stand out individually far more effectively this time around and succeed on their own terms AND as an album. Instrumentally, MTB delve into territory they haven't really hit yet, eschewing the subtle, clean tapping and dance-y 4/4 grooves for ballsy intertwining rock riffs, dense prog keyboards, funky time signatures and groove-heavy drumming, along with organic, flowing, unconventional song structures that genre-jump like Super Mario. The musical scope of the album is simply immense in every category, and easily redefines what anyone had previously thought Minus The Bear was capable of.
Minus The Bear are commonly known for their immense technical proficiency. The interplay between singer/rhythm guitarist Jake Snider and lead guitar prodigy Dave Knudson (yeah, he was in Botch for the people who need to know) is simply brilliant and lends to the claustrophobic, chilly character of the songs. While still retaining some of the quiet, subtle aspects of earlier guitar work like on the soft jazz/electronic inflections of "Ice Monster" and the laid-back opening track "Burying Luck", the two choose far more often to play their riffs loud this time around, refining their tandem into a mean juggernaut of wailing guitars, delay-ridden syncopations, and distinctly separate, meshing styles of play that never get old or fail to interest. The main focus is most definitely Dave Knudson's guitar work. This is unquestionably his shining moment here, laying down awe-inspiring riffs throughout the entire record and showing some of the most creative guitar work of any axeslinger out there in music currently. His effect-laden, ingenious uses of syncopation and melodic wit with formidable two-handed chops are simply incredible - check out his off-the-walls performance in "Double Vision Quest" and try not to sh*t yourself.
MTB's steroid-pumped walls of guitar are more than essential to crafting the overwhelming atmosphere of Planet Of Ice
itself. Every song has a distinct musical and lyrical theme of isolation and distance, with wintery, reverb-drenched guitar tones, really making you feel like you are on a planet of ice. The production helps here (handled by former keyboardist/hot-sh*t producer Matt Bayles), never getting too overdone or as over-processed as some spots on Menos El Oso
, while being far more organic and tighter than any of their earlier works. The atmosphere obtained on Planet Of Ice
is by far the most palpable example of MTB's mastery of ambience, tension and syncopation to create vivid feelings of moods and experiences. The keyboards are a huge part of this and figure much more prominently into the music this time, thanks to the new member, longtime touring-keyboard player Alex Rose. He's clearly a lot more proficient than Matt Bayles on the ivories and his prog leanings have had a clear effect on the business-as-usual for Minus The Bear, offering up jumpy, tight riffs like in "Knights", awesome counterpoints and compliments to the main hooks like in "Throwin' Shapes", and dense walls of ethereal ambience and frigid undulations in "Dr. L'Ling" and "Double Vision Quest". It adds a new depth and dimension that was only hinted at in Menos El Oso
. Drummer Erin Tate is still MTB's secret weapon and he flaunts it far more often here. His impeccable accuracy, subtle meter change-ups and incredible sense of groove propel the band and give them the energy needed, oftentimes becoming the star of the show on tracks like "Dr. L'Ling", "Knights", and especially the incredible jam freak-out in "Double Vision Quest" (just try not to rock the hell out on that one). Corey, the bassist, locks in tight with drummer Tate while doing his own melodic counterpoint to the dueling maelstrom of Knudson and Snider's guitars, keeping it bouncy and liquified the whole time. He never goes too crazy on it but he has perfect sense of when to lay back and when to step up when the song calls for it. Jake Snider's vocals remain distinct, with his laconic, mesmerizing voice conveying stories of heartbreak, distance in relationships, memorable nights with the person of your dreams, even the role of religion in war. While it's not Dostoyevsky, it's quite effective and perfectly suited to the music. His voice, criticized by some as one-dimensional, is more energetic than ever on songs like "Throwin' Shapes" (my pick for the "Pachuca Sunrise" of the record), "Burying Luck", and "Double Vision Quest". Basically the band is tighter than ever and show it far more on Planet Of Ice
than they've ever done before. There's a distinctively Pink Floyd vibe on many of the tracks, such as "Part 2" (the second half of the monster "Dr. L'Ling"), a song that could fit quite snugly into Wish You Were Here. These newfound prog sensibilities free MTB up to go nuts on their ambitious sound and icy concept motif, without which this album wouldn't be half as good.
Obviously, all that stuff is great, but what about the songs? Oh, the songs. They're all pretty much incredible. Like mentioned before, every track has a distinct mood and emotion separating it from the others, giving you a listening experience that never sounds recycled. "Burying Luck" is a bit of a lazy opener that serves as a stopgap between Menos El Oso
and Planet Of Ice
. It starts with weird, reversed volume-swells before going into a quirky, brisk 4/4 beat with odd, jumpy riffs. "What have you done?" Snider shouts in the chorus, while vague, jazzy chord stabs pile up upon one another. The keyboard is a big factor in this song, driving the main melody/melodic theme that hits during the bridge with an eerie, wistful whistling tone. The outro displays some of MTB's insane rhythmic tightness, starting and stopping the high-hat paradiddle beat on different accents every repeat, giving it a disjointed, mathy feel while the keyboard rings out behind it. "Ice Monster" may be the jazziest thing Minus The Bear have done yet, reveling in complex chord voicings, odd accents, softly muted guitar and even a friggin' hand-clapping
section that could go on any modern hip-hop record. The variety showcased on this track alone is one of the reasons this record is so damn good - they're not afraid to incorporate influences from any genre of music to write a good song. "Knights" is by far one of the best songs they've ever done and my personal favorite of the album. The undeniable energy and propulsive nature of the song sucks you in and takes you for a ride while Knudson and Snider continue to amaze at how easily their guitar duo knocks you on your ass riff after riff. The song is somewhat reminiscent of "The Fix" from Menos (especially the staccato keyboard intro), only far more complex and unpredictable (the song goes ABCDBCDEFGAH in structure if you count all the variations). The twin-guitar attack in the bridge is simply stunning and the main lead lick will stick in your mind for a long, long time after the song is done. You can rewind it, you know you want to.
MTB lets us know that it's time to get funky when "White Mystery" comes in, quiet and bumping with a simple yet crazy-effective bass line and sexy slow jam beat. The song is basically about bumping hips (so to speak), and the melodic, staccato guitar delays and washes of jazzy chords mixed with the groove make this a perfect song to throw on (and then throw down) with your old lady in the dark. Rose lays down some proggy keyboard noodling while Knudson comes in with short bursts of off-time, mathed-out taps, giving the song a distinctly arty, metropolitan feel while you get sucked in by the groove. But nothing prepares you for the onslaught of "Dr. L'Ling", the album's half-way point and an undeniable departure for the band in general. Clocking in at just shy of seven minutes, this song starts with some staccato gated drums and a pulsing, rising/falling keyboard figure that underlies most of the song (and some of it's other half, the much mellower "Part 2"), setting a desolate image of chilling isolation that has to be heard to be understood. The song is properly started by a crushing 4/4 groove with snare accents on the 3, 5, and 7 beat, giving it a disjointed off-time feel while Knudson plays with delay/reverb-heavy bends with Snider's steady, muted rhythmic inflections. The lyrics weave a story seemingly about a couple being driven apart and emotionally isolated, only for the protagonist to come back out of desperate need. Snider sings the chorus:
"Don't give me your hand-me-down love
It don't wear the same
I want love that looks good on, with a fit that screams my name
And I was afraid of becoming a casual businessman on matters of the heart
I'm becoming a casual businessman
Or something even worse"
The droning, harmonized vocals are something new and unsettling from Minus The Bear. The motif is incredibly claustrophobic and alien-sounding, breaking into a melange of delayed guitars and sharp bends that continue the xenophobic nature of the song. After a cool start-stop verse, the song repeats the chorus/main section again, only this time ending it into a new verse section featuring a slick keyboard groove. It's after this part where MTB starts to cut loose from the backbone of the song into a tremendous, meter/key-changing guitar duel that will blow your mind at how effortless they make it sound. The song ebbs off for a minute, trading quiet licks while Rose lays down a thick, sliding groove underneath it. Then it begins to build tension, paradiddles, volume and riffs increasing in velocity and volume and... Jesus Herman Christ these guys are daaaaaaaaamn good at what they do. Certainly one of the best songs on the album.
If anything, "Part 2" is the denouement to "Dr L'Ling", basking in undeniably-Floydian acoustic arrangements, lonely bends, flanged keys, sleepy vocals, and an epic guitar solo that is beautiful in its stark simplicity. It's a quiet lull in the action after the previous blizzard of "Dr. L'Ling". The next track, "Throwin' Shapes", picks up the pace again with a bouncy, fun melody that is somewhat reminiscent of fan-favorite "Pachuca Sunrise" from Menos El Oso
. With a plain fun-sounding melody (which for some reason to me brings to mind a perfect summer day on the nicest beach ever) and it's ridiculously catchy drive, this is a definite standout and one of the best songs on here. "When We Escape" is a combination of sorts, lulling you into a slow-jam sort of mood with some sublime keyboard work and an extremely cool tapped guitar, until it gets swept away by a phat little rocked-out jam that pops up in and out during the song. The fade-out is one of my favorite parts, with delay-drenched riffs giving the exit a watery, delicate feel.
This review is definitely a freaking beast, and I don't want to give away the last two songs. All you need to know is that "Double Vision Quest" will lull you in and then rock your frigging socks off like no other Minus The Bear song before, and that the nearly nine-minute "Lotus" is the best song Pink Floyd never wrote, by far one of the most epic compositions you will hear for quite some time, and a combination of everything MTB have done sonically in one song. It'll slay you without quarter, like most of this album, because Planet Of Ice
owns, and it owns hard. You'll probably notice I haven't made any criticisms of this record. That's because I really can't find any. I really haven't heard an album that has grabbed me like this in a long, long time. Every single note and song on here is unique, beautiful, and interesting in its own right while remaining simultaneously catchy, memorable, and incredibly complex, with lyrics anyone can relate to. There are riffs, subtleties, tones, licks, nuances and parts that will take you months to pick out (do yourself a favor and listen to this with GOOD headphones, it's essential), and technical aspects that will have any musician scratching their heads and cursing their lack of skill. And this is all done in an incredibly accessible way without being contrived, pompous, or pretentious at all.
Simply put, Planet Of Ice
is just about the best damn record of 2007, by far the greatest Minus The Bear record yet, and probably one of the better records of the last few years. If anything can prove that Minus The Bear is one of the greatest bands out there today, this record is most certainly it. Powerful, danceable, catchy, complex, trancendent, chilled-out, everyone's favorite four-letter word (epic), and a whole bunch of other cliche adjectives all apply here. A masterpiece that is a hair short of perfection. Go buy it right freaking now if you like music.
- Excellent songwriting that is easily relatable, lyrically
- Catchy and very accessible while remaining stunningly complex
- Tremendous progression from Menos El Oso
- Incredibly inventive guitar interplay and all-around stellar musicianship
- Great production with hundreds of nuances
- Epic in scope, composition, atmosphere, and concept
- The new prog tendencies may turn off some
- The hooks and catchy parts aren't as immediate as on previous albums
- Not as immediately gratifying as their older records (which may not be a bad thing at all)
Knights, Double Vision Quest, Throwin' Shapes, Dr. L'Ling, Lotus, Ice Monster
This album releases on August 21st, 2007. It can be streamed here: http://www.mtvu.com/music/the_leak/minus_the_bear/