And now, a brief evolutionary history of Minus the Bear. When they first emerged in the early ’00s, they were a goofy math rock band whose twisted finger tapping guitar style and oft-hilarious song titles were considered endearing. On 2005’s Menos El Oso, they matured to the point where their goofy song titles and lighthearted bounce were replaced with sincerity and precision. Though it didn’t always feel right, people did start to treat the band with more respect, which they took and ran with. 2007’s Planet of Ice was a calmer attempt to broaden their sound with more prog-rock elements and dashes of electronics. It was beautiful but failed to fully engage the listener. That only got worse in 2010 with Omni, a synth-heavy record that moved away from their signature guitar sound in favor of something that sounded overproduced and an attempt at commercial success. Whether or not the strategy worked is debatable, because while their record sales went up, they were also signed to a better label with a better promotional team.
After four full-lengths of varying quality, Minus the Bear seem to have settled down on their fifth record Infinity Overhead. The dominant synths of Omni have all but vanished, as have some of the more atmospheric and progressive pieces of Planet of Ice. Their guitars are back in full force, and the finger tapping math rock style returns too, though with a bit less emphasis than some of their earlier material. Listen closely to “Toska” and “Cold Company” for some of the most impressive instrumental work they’ve ever done. That you have to listen closely at all is evidence of how Minus the Bear have changed over the course of their career. They’re in no way returning to their carefree and goofy early days, and whether or not you view that as a good thing, it makes their music more difficult to penetrate.
There are rewards to be found in listening to Infinity Overhead several times as the songs slowly begin to grow on you. “Lies and Eyes” and “Diamond Lightning” in particular start to stand out the longer you live with them. They’re also two tracks that probably best blend the various elements and styles the band has adopted over the last decade, which is in a sense a good way of hearing exactly how they’ve grown. The retrospective aspect is nice, but you also come to realize that this record doesn’t venture any place new. Say what you will about Omni, but at least that was one of Minus the Bear’s attempts to shake things up a little.
To think that they’re sitting in a stalled out vehicle here is a little disappointing, as are most of the tracks on the album, most of which have all the distinctiveness of wallpaper. Moreover, the band simply sounds bored most of the time, or at least are approaching these songs with such extreme seriousness that they’re suffocated by it. If they want to get all stonefaced about their music, there needs to be passion in making it that seeps through to the listener. Infinity Overhead is more often than not a joyless business transaction, and coming from a band that once created vital songs with hilarious titles like “Thanks For The Killer Game of Crisco Twister” and “Just Kickin’ It Like a Wild Donkey,” that’s perhaps most disappointing of all.