The intricacy of rhythm and melody on Planet of Ice, the latest from Minus the Bear, amazes me to the point of distraction. Case in point: I often read while listening to music, or listen to music while I read – the more captivating medium being the recipient of my attention. In this case, I couldn’t even get through a paragraph of my book without stopping to stare at the speakers: Just what is going on under all of those layers of sound, in tracks like “Double Vision Quest”? Then I realized (and was thankful) that Planet does what I hoped it would, and does not do what I feared it might; that is, Planet of Ice returns the Bear to their sound—a welcome change following the odd “remixes” of the last release, Intepretaciones del Oso. I’ve been antsy ever since reviewing that last one, but I think MTB are back on track.
The first single, “Knights,” is a sure winner. It’s perfectly accessible for radio, yet still employees Minus the Bear’s signature off-kilter math-rock rhythms and blistering guitar hot-licks, buoying Jake Snider’s monotone/laissez-faire vox alongside a kicking dance beat. The sound on this single is so much bigger, fuller than previous tracks by the Bear. A creepy ghost-train keyboard sound bookends “Dr. L’Ling,” another boomer and surefire fan favorite. I always knew that guitarist Dave Knudson and drummer Erin Tate were masters of their craft; on this record, and especially this track, they’ve taken it up another step.
“L’Ling” bleeds effortlessly into the quiet ballad “Part 2,” giving us our first taste of the 1970s guitar-rock fetish the Bear is currently jamming on. Planet of Ice is the first release with Alex Rose on keyboards (ex-keyboardist Matt Bayles is now behind the production-window instead of the keys). Rose’s talent and apparent ear for elaborate instrumentation is a change in a great direction for the five-piece. “Throwin’ Shapes” is classic MTB: driving tempos, soaring vocals, woozy guitars, pretty melodies.
The magnum opus of Planet is the brooding, nearly nine-minute closer, “Lotus.” It’s a departure for the Bear, employing more layers, more detail, and more wily guitar licks atop a very prog-rock premise. It’s almost Pink Floydian (which could explain the band’s choice to host their CD release party at the LaserDome). If it weren’t for this track, I’d be giving this record a 7 (the same rating awarded to Menos El Oso); but the sheer fact that they had the balls to concoct this stoner/arena-rock piece and use it to close-out the record has bumped up the rating at least a half notch.
The truth is, I wanted to like this release a lot more than its predecessors. But for all the moments of greatness and exploring new territory, it’s also pretty darn familiar. While there’s definitely development on this record, there’s also redundancy and room to grow even more. I’m wishing the Bear would break out of their comfort zone, challenging themselves to release a full-record’s worth of more developed tracks like “Lotus,” “Part 2,” and the gorgeously cacophonous conclusion of “White Mystery.”
I’m also tiring of the start-stop tactic employed so heavily on Menos, Interpretaciones, and now Planet. It’s cool to play with the controls, pausing and remixing a warbling guitar or keyboard note into a staccato, electronic beep pattern; but it’s becoming over-used in Minus the Bear’s repertoire. And take Snider’s vocals: A little harmony, rather than overlaid vocal tracks of the same note, could really bring some vigor into these works.
The fact that this is Minus the Bear’s third official full-length (excluding the remixed Intepretaciones) shocks me, in the sense that they still have not broken mainstream in the way I still believe they can. This is a band that has sold out shows in major markets like NYC, San Francisco, and of course the town we’re so proud to call their home. But how their record sales haven’t hit even the quarter-million mark surprises me. Maybe the third time will indeed be their charm.