Question the Bear

12 Sep

Minus the Bear released  their newest album Infinity Overhead on August 28.  In case that sentence doesn’t make much sense to you, Minus the Bear is a Seattle-based band that has been around for 11 years, turning out 5 proper albums and a handful of smaller EPs releases over that time period.  The band was an early favorite in my life as a music fan, and as a result, I approached Infinity Overhead in a different way than I did other recent releases.  As my approach to the album was different, so too was my reaction upon first listen.

My reaction to this album was unique, and it was unique in a way that led me to question how I think about the music I enjoy, and about the artists I cite as long-held favorites.  It was a thought-provoking album, in a way that didn’t really have much to do with the substance of the songs themselves.

MtB’s music could be described in a very simplified way as electronic-tinged indie rock.  Their sound is predominantly based around a dynamic lead guitar line, which is usually leading the way as the songs shift between multiple time signatures.  Guitarist Dave Knudson loves his effects pedals, and his propensity for building melodic and haunting hooks out of guitar loops is one of the defining aspects of the group’s musical identity.  Another defining component would be frontman Jake Snider’s vocals, which are marked by his airy voice and lyrics that are both conversational and visually evocative.  Add in a synthesizer section of the band that will occasionally take front and center, and you start to get a feel for the unique sound that MtB has been creating for over a decade.

My introduction to MtB came about at some point in high school – the exact point in time has dissolved into the haze of the ambiguous teenage timeline.  I came across MtB mainly due to the fact that we both came from Seattle.  The band had built up a strong following among the local music scene at that point, and I had picked up on the buzz from friends who were more scene than I was.  As I started to explore the band’s music, my connection to their work developed to a level beyond just that of a shared hometown.  I was floored by the spiky melodies and propulsive emotions of the songs, and hook after hook got buried into my head.  Each MtB release that I came across seemed to offer something new to enjoy, and when I was finally able to get to a live show, the band met the raucous energy of the sweaty, sold-out club crowd head-on and exceeded expectations with a great set.

When MtB released their album Planet of Ice in 2007, I had already carried their music with me to college like a particularly meaningful piece of home, and the new songs only added to that piece.  Ice was an intriguing mix of songs that were particularly moody and seductive, and it seemed as if the band had found a way to expand their earlier sound without losing many of the core elements that had made them so compelling in the first place.  At this point, I would have confidently put MtB in a discussion of my favorite bands.  This was a sentimental inclusion into a large group, but still – they commanded my respect and appreciation as a fan.

After Planet of Ice was released in 2007, the next proper albums to come from MtB were OMNI in 2010, and then the record I mentioned earlier, Infinity Overhead.  Beginning with OMNI, my reception to the new MtB albums began to change a bit.  Rather than getting instantly hooked into each new batch of songs, I could feel myself having a much more subdued reaction.  With OMNI, the basic MtB sound was still intact – electronic flourishes, live-wire guitar lines, lyrical accounts of beautiful women encountered on rain-slicked city streets.  Largely missing, however, was a sense of immediacy and an edge to the music that I had found so alluring in the group’s previous releases.  It wasn’t that OMNI was a bad album.  It was a very solid album, and occasionally had moments or songs that hit the same emotional and musical themes that I had always loved about MtB.  There was just something mildly disappointing about the record, so that I found myself straining to really like it at times.  The spark just wasn’t there, as it had been before.

As OMNI faded away and Infinity Overhead approached, I didn’t know what to expect.  Well, I kind of knew, in the back of my head, but didn’t want to admit it.  I wanted MtB to do well – I felt as if I had an investment in their success, and as a music fan, I wanted to hear the band reach the same heights as they had on their earlier records.  After listening to Infinity a couple of times, I was discouraged to find that my initial wariness from OMNI had been justified.  Infinity sounds as if the group is definitely trying to grow their sound – expanding the scope with chiming guitar chords and broadening the subject matter of the lyrics so that there are less sections about a small moment at the back of a bar and more about the feelings behind universal topics like heaven and adulthood.  For me, at least, these efforts fall flat and a lot of Infinity sounds as if the group is trying too hard, or at least forcing an energy through that didn’t need to be forced before.  Again, like OMNI, this is not a bad record.  There is still a lot of enjoyment to be found from these songs.  But when I compare Infinity to the majority of MtB’s discography, I can’t help but be disappointed.

That disappointment bothers me, and leads to some questions.  Why, exactly, do I feel let down by MtB’s new songs?  Is it because of the musical quality, or is it because I can’t put my romanticized notions of the group to the side and just approach the album as its own separate piece of work?  Or am I not responding as fervently to Infinity just because I’m now at a different point in my life – namely, I’m growing up and firmly a member of the (young) adult world.  If my age and situation in life does have an effect on these new MtB records, does that mean that my admiration and attachment to the group’s earlier records had more to do with me than it did with the music itself?  And along these lines, were those early, beloved MtB tracks really all that good, or did they just come along at the right place and the right time, striking chords in me that could have been struck by any number of bands?  

Most of these questions call up the issue of my musical tastes, and the arbitrary nature of the whole music fan experience.  When it comes to the questions about my earlier affinity for MtB being defined more by my teenage self than by their actual music, it makes me wonder if someone could just decide to find a favorite band, and then manipulate their listening experiences so that eventually, whatever band they choose will, in fact, be the group that inspires the heady emotions and attachments that can be a part of music fandom.  I can see some ways that this arbitrary ‘favorite band’ decision could be possible.  If someone were to consistently and consciously play a band’s songs during moments of their life that they know will be memorable (teenage years, college, when you’re falling in love with someone) than those songs and that band will begin to take on a lot of emotional significance. There could be the same attachment that I have felt at times for MtB.  The fact that I love many MtB songs that I first listened to all through high school, and that I now have a tepid reaction to MtB songs that I’m listening to during adulthood could be construed as an extension of this arbitrary argument.

This, to me, is troublesome.  The idea that someone could consciously choose the music they will have a lifelong connection to, the music that they can always turn to at rough times for solace and inspiration, bothers me because it goes against what I believe about music in general.  I may be idealistic, but I believe that you can’t choose what songs will catch your ear and burrow into your emotions at any given time.  One of things I love about music is the way in which you can stumble across a song or artist purely by chance, and when you instantly feel a connection to their work, that ‘chance’ can seem like fate.  It brings some sense of magic and fate into a world that can at times seem to be lacking in these things.  You can allow yourself to think, if just for a second, that you were ‘meant’ to hear a certain song or artist because they could tell you something about life that you were missing.  The intangible, artistic strength and meaning behind great music (which early MtB was to me) is not something that can be manipulated or faked.  At least that’s what I believe.

To help momentarily settle my bit of music fan disquiet, I put the album that started all these questions –  Infinity Overhead – on pause, and went back to the older MtB releases that had initially drawn me in to the band.  I wanted to see if these older tracks would sound any differently now that I had heard the new releases and now that I had questioned the reasons I liked the band in the first place.

With MtB songs like “Fine + 2 PTS,” “I Lost All My Money At The Cock Fights,” and “Monkey!!!Knife!!!Fight!!!” it’s easy to see how my teenage self would have been drawn in right away.  A lot of these songs have a sexy, swaggering, and brooding edge to them, with a recurring theme of ‘fuck it, I’ll do whatever I want’ running throughout.  In that area, at least, the age at which I discovered MtB had an influence on how much I was attracted to the group’s music.  But you know what?  Even today, no longer a teenager, I can still feel those emotional themes surging through those old songs, and I can still get moved by them.  Both the lyrics and the compelling sounds behind the tracks are tapped into something that reaches the teenage self in all of us – the young self that never really goes away.  We all still have some of those raw, turbulent emotions inside of us, and MtB were great in the way they were able to put a voice to all of that.

Perhaps MtB’s new music isn’t firing the same spark inside of me because the band themselves grew up and grew away from those vibrant emotions they depicted so well.  A lot of artists have gone through the same process, trying to keep the emotional edge to their music as they concurrently try to mature it and use it to portray the new themes of their no-longer angst-driven young lives.  It’s a hard thing to do, and just because it may not be totally successful, that doesn’t mean it discounts the great earlier music that drew fans to that band in the first place.  When a body of work strikes you in the same way that MtB’s earlier work did to me, there is a much deeper reason behind that connection besides just being a teenager looking for music to rock out and emote to.  There’s a strong and talented artistic voice behind that kind of connection.  And that’s what Minus the Bear have.  No matter what they put out in the future, I’ll always be a fan of that unique voice.

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