Minus the Bear - Infinity Overhead
Record Label: Dangerbird
Release Date: August 28, 2012
Full disclosure: I was among the many Minus the Bear fanboys who felt let down by their 2010 album Omni, not because it really sucked, but because it simply felt like the sort of album lots of bands could have made. It would be hypocritical of me to accuse them of being content to underachieve, but doing so is made that much easier thanks to the band setting the bar so damn high for themselves. Listening to their new album, Infinity Overhead, it's hard not to perceive Omni as an exercise in what my boss would call "managing expectations." Through Planet of Ice, each new Minus the Bear release presented us with more guitar wizardry, more effects, more quirky rhythms and structures. Though Omni turned this on its head by giving us less when more, more, more had become the order of the day, its cardinal sin was not that it was "different," but that it offered little in the way of interesting sonics, and for a supposed dance-pop album, was largely lacking the sharp hooks of their earlier material. Like Omni, Infinity Overhead doesn't showcase the band at their boundary-pushing best, maybe because they've already pushed the boundaries just about as far as they could go. But unlike Omni, this one actually sounds like a Minus the Bear album. Also unlike Omni, even though this, too, isn't particularly groundbreaking, it's really very good.
Yes, they're still flaunting their new-found love for synthesizers, but as the pace-setting opener "Steel and Blood" suggests, they've found a way to balance that with a heaping helping of their signature guitar sounds. Even though it's pretty clear now that guitarist and god-among-men Dave Knudson has completely abandoned the tapping techniques that were once a staple of the Minus the Bear aesthetic, hearing how distinctive the band's textures and rhythms can sound anyway-- tell me you can mistake the opening of "Lies and Eyes", laser-beam synths and all, for another band-- is enough reassurance that this development is just fine. These auspicious early tracks exhibit the Seattle quintet's taut melody-making skills in full effect, but in spite of their effortless way with mid-tempo gems, it's when they venture into relatively uncharted territory for them-- lush balladry-- that Minus the Bear achieve Infinity Overhead's defining moment. Yes, I do remember Planet of Ice's "White Mystery", but that song's languor reflected the sweaty, sultry encounter depicted in its lyrics. Infinity Overhead's show-stopper "Diamond Lightning" is not a sex jam, but a song with an easy sense of grandeur, the perfect soundtrack for those chilling life moments when you're witnessing something extraordinary, surreal, transcendent or otherwise beyond words.
If Infinity throws a bone to those longing for the more daring incarnation of Minus the Bear, it comes in the form of "Toska", a collage of nimble guitars and vintage Talking Heads rhythms. It feels a little bit like an island of playfulness and adventurousness in a sea of somber. Sometimes, that mellow mood is effective; on the acoustic flavored "Listing", we get a taste of Minus the Bear as coffee shop band, and the warm, laid-back vibe suits them surprisingly well. "Empty Party Rooms" recalls the breezy slow groove of Menos El Oso's "El Torrente", and the slinky keyboard accents are a fittingly pleasant touch here. However, on the even more chilled-out "Heaven Is a Ghost Town", Jake Snider sings, "Did the Lord stop paying the lease?" and we're left to shake our heads wondering what he's talking about. I'm not categorically opposed to theological talk, but it's bizarrely incongruous coming from this almost universally hedonistic act.
After that comparatively soft middle section, Infinity Overhead picks up the tempo to close out the album. "Zeros" hits with the insistent riffing characteristic of Menos El Oso and Planet of Ice, and with a surprisingly populist lyrical tint, as Snider sings, "It's all a sick joke on the middle class." (Maybe it's a little bit of an attempt to shed the image of a band who only writes songs about drinking, drugs and sex, but I can't front: I really, really love that band.) The propulsive, single-worthy "Lonely Gun" finds Knudson working the hell out of his effects pedal, the wah-wahs offering a unique spin on the band's sound. The rousing shout-along ode to Sisyphus, "Cold Company", closes the disc with an arena-readiness and flair for the dramatic that aren't exactly Minus the Bear hallmarks, but I could get used to them.
When it's all said and done, I realize that no matter what I say about Infinity Overhead, it will be totally wrong to legions of opinionated people. Bespectacled kids with "Math Rock for Life" t-shirts will hate it, and Omni devotees will hate them, and life will go on. And somewhere in the reasonable middle, I hope the masses will judge the record on its own merits for the incredibly fun shot of proggy pop that it is. Minus the Bear are a band of such rare talent that even when they don't quite connect with the sweet spot of the bat, they can still hit a home run.
great review Jeremy, you and I share a lot of the same opinions that I had over this record. Personal favorite track is Diamond Lightning. Agreed about the out of place lyrics on Heaven Is A Ghost Town.
Really like this album. Its not trying to be super different while not completely disregarding what the band is best at. The album is a good mix of OMNI and their previous works. I honestly hope people see this as the bridge album between those eras. I do think it was cool when they consistently pushed boundaries but their is something sensual about this album and while it may not go down as a classic it is very enjoyable and the sort of album for a long drive home with a significant other.