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Album Review: Minus the Bear – Infinity Overhead [Dangerbird]

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.

Minus the Bear – Steel And Blood

Buy Infinity Overhead from Amazon

Live Saturday: 7-10-10

I don’t know about you, but despite the holiday, my week has been exceptionally busy. So busy in fact, that even getting a reduced number of blog entries in has been a challenge. So this week I’m taking a special exception and after some delays am now proud to present a delayed version of Live Friday, which for this week we’ll call Live Saturday. The session is with Minus the Bear, who are out on tour promoting their latest album “OMNI”. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the album when it came out a couple months ago, but it has grown on me a little bit. One thing that’s not lacking though is Minus the Bear’s live show, which is more fun and engaging than a fair amount of their recorded stuff. Apparently the intent behind “OMNI” was to make an album that had a closer feel to how the band performs, and considering how this set of songs played live from that album sound, they hit the mark pretty well. There’s a brief interview with the band you can stream below as well, though it’s not long and pretty much details what they did differently on this album compared to their previous ones. But have a listen, and by all means enjoy.

P.S. – Sorry, but “Into the Mirror” is having some hosting issues, so please follow the links to YouSendIt or ZShare if you’d like to download it. Thanks!

Minus the Bear, Live on WXPN 6-2-10:
Minus the Bear – Into the Mirror (Live on WXPN) [YSI] [ZShare]
Minus the Bear – Hold Me Down (Live on WXPN)
Minus the Bear – My Time (Live on WXPN)
Minus the Bear – Summer Angel (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “OMNI” from Amazon

Album Review: Minus the Bear – Omni [Dangerbird]

For those of you who’ve not heard the humble math rock beginnings of Minus the Bear, I strongly encourage you to go out and find a copy of their debut album “Highly Refined Pirates” as soon as possible. Between that and the EPs “This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic”, “Bands Like It When You Yell ‘Yar!’ At Them” and “They Make Beer Commercials Like This”, Minus the Bear had built their early career on making incredibly catchy, quirky, and subversive rock songs that sounded little like other bands around at the time. Throw in silly song titles like “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!” and “I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights” and suddenly you’ve got a really cool band that also clearly has a sense of humor. Those were the years of 2001-2004, when I was so impressed with the band that they quickly became one of my favorite new indie acts. Then 2005 arrived, and my excitement knew no bounds upon the release of their sophmore album “Menos El Oso”. But the funny song titles had disappeared, and with them a band that was far more serious about what they were doing. Playtime was over, and now they were making math rock with purpose and laser-like focus. By that same token, the album was excellent but not as catchy as its predecessor, and when I saw the band live for the first time the experience was marred by an excessively drunk guy next to me who eventually threw a bottle at the stage. 2007’s “Planet of Ice” pulled me in two different directions as I finally accepted the quirky and fun days of old were gone forever, but suddenly the band shifted their direction yet again and moved away from their math rock past into something more psychedelic and synth-dominant. Another good record, but once again I was bothered by the band’s inability to commit to a style and stick with it for more than one album. And despite their knack for writing compelling songs, their once unique sound had turned into an imitation of other, more classic bands. Now with a new album and record label in tow, Minus the Bear’s new album “Omni” is out this week, and surprise surprise, they’re once again experiencing another shift in their sonic palette.

When recording “Omni”, Minus the Bear were without a record label. They parted ways with Suicide Squeeze, the label they had been with from the very beginning. To help generate interest in their new recordings, they released the song “Into the Mirror”, which apparently earned them some attention from Dangerbird Records, who they signed with in February. The song was an early indicator of the stylistic shift that “Omni” would offer: a mid-tempo, slickly produced track that was extremely synth-heavy yet still pretty good overall. It was promising in the idea that the new record could be their most accessible and danceable yet, something that the pre-release single “My Time” backed up with flying colors. I may still be upset with the band for abandoning their math rock roots, but the early indicators were that at least the new stuff was going to be compelling in one form or another. Here’s the thing though: compelling as it might be, “Omni” as a whole comes across as a somewhat desperate attempt at currying favor with a mainstream audience. Completely overproduced is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the album. This thing has so much polish that the song title “Into the Mirror” might as well describe exactly how it sounds. The record is so clean I can hear my own reflection in it. Then throw in, outside of the two aforementioned singles, that after a half dozen times through I can’t mentally recall what any of the other songs sound like, and we’ve got problems. “Excuses”, something that describes what the band may be making after what’s sure to be a collection of negative reviews, is perhaps the only other song on the album I have a moderate liking for. Don’t even get me started on the lyrics either, which treats sex, drugs and rock n’ roll like it’s a new concept yet to be explored in song.

Despite my many complaints, I still find myself thinking that “Omni” isn’t a horrible album. Instead, consider this review like a parent chastising a child for telling a white lie: you’re upset and you may yell at them, but in the end what they did wasn’t THAT bad and you still love them anyways. The record may be overproduced and unmemorable, but there are no songs that I actively dislike. Inoffensive and easy is the name of the game, and Minus the Bear do it with pluck and dignity. Yes, they’re a bland shell of what they once were, but if that translates to a wider audience and higher record sales, more power to ’em. For the sake of my own sanity I can’t recommend that you buy “Omni”, but if you showed me a copy in your record collection I wouldn’t yell at you for it. The salad days of my love for Minus the Bear may be quickly going by the wayside, but I’m comforted by the idea that they might find solace in the arms of a teenage kid who doesn’t know any better. “Omni” is a risk that this band needed to take, and rest assured should they eventually choose to return to their sound of old, I’ll be waiting for them with open arms. Thanks for that killer game of Crisco Twister, guys.

Minus the Bear – Into the Mirror (mediafire)

Buy “Omni” from Amazon

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