Making Math Rock Accessible Since 2001
In 2001, Minus the Bear emphatically arrived to the math rock scene, a genre known for its use of irregular time signatures and advanced guitar techniques. For all its technical merit, though, math rock has never really been associated with mainstream success. Instead, the large majority of its artists seem to settle for small yet cultish followings of listeners who relish in the genre’s eccentricities. For this reason, Minus the Bear’s continual commercial success has been rather exceptional. Sure, after two, slightly more experimental albums (Highly Refined Pirates and Menos El Oso), they slowly began to drift towards a danceable, pop-friendly sound. However, even with slick production and predictable hooks, lead guitarist Dave Knudson’s rapid-fire tapping paired with Erin Tate’s off-kilter drum rhythms have kept things from ever growing stale musically. And this unique compromise between musical accessibility and technicality has allowed the band to accumulate a diverse fan base during their decade-plus existence.
Unfortunately, after releasing the electronica-infused Infinity Overhead in 2012, the band have remained largely dormant. They have not been completely inactive during this five-year hiatus, which yielded two nostalgia-tinged releases — a B-side collection and an acoustic album. However, they produced nothing in the way of new material. Especially after the sudden departure of drummer and founding member Tate in 2015, the band seemed to have hit a creative rut of sorts. Fans were left wondering if there would even be a next Minus the Bear album at all.
Enter VOIDS, the group’s first LP in five years. While this newest offering, unlike some of the their earlier, more innovative works, is fairly conservative in its approach, Minus the Bear followers will be reassured to find that the stylistic idiosyncrasies that have always defined the band’s catalog remain in tact. Less than ten seconds into album opener “Last Kiss,” we are treated to a catchy, minor chord guitar riff that reminds us of the band’s ability to piece together alluring and accessible instrumental figures. Meanwhile, vocalist Jake Snider reminds us of his ability during the chorus, exhibiting impressive melodic chops. The very next track, “Give & Take,” on the other hand, showcases how efficiently the group can tackle difficult rhythms, managing a stilted 12/4 time signature and highly syncopated hits. Generally speaking, replacement drummer Kiefer Matthias does terrific work anchoring the quintet rhythmically on VOIDS.
After the record lackadaisically teeters its way through some pop fluff in the form of “Call the Cops” and “What About the Boat?,” the band show us that they can still rock out. The middle section of the album revs things up, as “Silver” offers an irresistible groove centered around Knudson’s trippy, staccato-inflected guitar playing. Finally, the song culminates with impressive energy, as we’re treated to a guitar solo and a resounding climax — something not really encountered on VOIDS up until this point. Fortunately, Minus the Bear maintain this momentum into the next track, “Tame Beasts,” which crafts an impressively haphazard rhythm for common (i.e. 4/4) time. Keyboardist Alex Rose takes a stab at vocals and his croon, which is remarkably similar to that of Snider, is harmonized with the former lead singer’s backup calls to tremendous effect. Again, this combination of scintillating vocals, infectious beats and extreme musical technicality is the formula that has afforded Minus the Bear such a rabid listenership over the years.
The following song, “Erase,” like some of the album’s earlier numbers, is surprisingly downbeat. Yet, unlike them, it doesn’t feel like mere filler. Snider’s emotive vocal delivery combined with lush harmonies, a texturally rich soundscape and syncopated rhythms ensure that listeners remain engaged — and perhaps even moved. Finally, VOIDS closes with “Robotic Heart” and “Lighthouse,” two songs that provide little in the way of memorable melodic hooks, but do offer electrifying guitar solo finales.
Perhaps Minus the Bear’s latest album doesn’t feature the band’s catchiest or most technical material to date, but, as usual, it achieves an enjoyable — and rare — balance between these two extremes. It’s refreshing to see an artist that is able to achieve a radio-friendly sound without completely throwing musicianship out the window, as is often the case with pop music. And, if nothing else, Minus the Bear fans should rejoice in the fact that their band have not lost their unique flair after all these years.