So many aspects about Seattle's Minus the Bear point to a band destined for certain failure. They're an indie band that plays dance beats, emblazes their songs with bizarre head-scratchers such as "Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked" and "Let's Play Guitar in a Five Guitar Band," and rips out finger-tapped guitar riffs in the vein of Eddie Van Halen. The band does manage to sound off-kilter at times. But gorgeous layers and clean production have propelled the talented quartet into an emerging rock outfit teetering on the fringe of popular music relevance.
With their just-released fourth LP (not including a collection of remixes released earlier this year) Planet of Ice, Minus the Bear has made another step towards mass success, riding their momentum gained since their 2005 album, Menos el Oso. Their newfound almost-success, however, comes at some cost.
There is no more appropriate title for this record than Planet of Ice. The album sounds cold and digital - not quite soulless but emotionally lacking. The music evokes the feel of clean, white linoleum. This is especially noticeable in the early tracks, arresting the album's momentum on those such as "Knights," which presents an extremely cheesy Linkin Park-esque computerized beat, and "Burying Luck," which wavers between a refreshing taste of Menos el Oso vapor and an obvious recycling of old ideas. But as the album progresses, things actually begin to thaw and an amazing thing happens: Minus the Bear goes batcrazy out of control, flying off their rails and transforming into some progressive, cerebral jam band, sparing the aimlessness of jam and the pretension of prog.
The first red flag is "White Mystery," which possesses one of the band's strongest riffs. The robust harmonies blanket the album with some much-needed warmth. Planet of Ice ends on one of the strongest finales in recent memory; the final three tracks - "When We Escape," "Double Vision Quest" and "Lotus," present a laser-beam focus never before seen from the band, with a sort of novel recklessness. They are quite literally jams, with beautiful chord progressions reminiscent of Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd.
And yet, in the end, there remains something a bit antiseptic about this album. It brings to mind such contemplative electronic LPs as Bright Eyes' Digital Ash in a Digital Urn or Radiohead's OK Computer, but lacks those albums' three-dimensional aspects. It's difficult to criticize an album wherein much talent and devotion was obviously spent. The musicianship found here is jaw-dropping. However, guitarist David Knudson could hammer his strings until his fingertips are worn raw, and in some cases the music may still leave its listener numb.
Planet of Ice is in no way a failure. But it serves only as suggestion of what this band is truly capable of with the incorporation of more blood and guts. As it stands, Planet of Ice sounds more like it was built than born.
Not that Minus the Bear ever wanted to sound organic. Never shy of computer-assistance in the mixing room, the band may be the first legitimate musical representation of the digital age: cold, hard, deliberate and a little sad. Bands like Radiohead have created albums that dissect a computerized world, but it was always from the outside looking in. Minus the Bear's music isn't an observation of this change, it's a result of it. These results can be ambivalent, steely, distant and even sometimes hollow. Despite all this, in most cases, they are also beautiful.