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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Minus the Bear, a Band Divided

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Not everyone was a fan of Minus the Bear's fourth album, Omni, even within the band.

After spending the first part of their career exploring an intricately plotted blend of prog and post-punk suffused with cloudy atmospherics, the Seattle quintet went in a different direction on their 2010 effort. They had been intrigued by disco at the time of that recording, and decided to enlist producer Joe Chiccarelli (Counting Crows, My Morning Jacket) to explore a brighter, poppier, more propulsive sound. But having never worked with an outside producer, the band struggled to mesh their visions.

“[Doing the basic tracks] was really one of my favorite sessions, and then it just devolved when we were getting to the overdub aspect,” says singer/guitarist Jake Snider. “I think it's one of the best records we've done. But it was a tough record to do.”

Omni
also coincided with a jump from the label Suicide Squeeze, where they'd spent their entire career, to up-and-coming indie Dangerbird Records, and that wasn't a smooth transition, either (even if the bigger label did help the album to chart modestly better than 2007's Planet of Ice). Those disappointments drove the band's fifth and latest album, Infinity Overhead, inspiring the record's rejigged synthesis of old and new.

“We spent a ton of money trying a new label, new recording process, new people, and I wouldn't say it was a bummer in terms of the results, but I think we expected more out of that investment,” Snider says. “This record we felt, 'Fuck that shit.' We'll make it how we typically make a record. Now we know making an expensive recording doesn't make it a better recording. And investment doesn't mean you sell more records.”

They returned to producer Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Polar Bear Club), who had been the band's keyboardist until 2006, when he quit to concentrate on production. He's been involved in everything else Minus the Bear has done, but that didn't change the fact that the band was being pulled in two different directions—toward tighter, more overtly hooky arrangements and toward the knotty angularity of their earlier albums. (Just prior to hitting the studio, they'd done a tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut LP, Highly Refined Pirates, by playing the album start to finish.)

“We weren't really on the same page stylistically for this record, and I think it kind of shows a lot of tension from that,” he says. “I feel like we're trying to be more concise and get to the point quicker when we're writing. There's a lot of push and pull in the band when it comes to that. Some people don't feel the need for concise arrangements. Some people really don't want fluff and excess musicianship.”

Infinity Overhead
is still in contact with the band's more unabashedly poppy aspects, but it feels more mediated and better balanced than Omni. That's undoubtedly due to the push-back, and it feels like a better compromise. That's particularly true of late-album track “Lonely Gun.” The wah guitar opening is unadulterated '70s fare as Snider caresses the vowels with soulful reserve. Meanwhile, in the background, spiky bursts of guitar swim upstream, unsettling the song's turndown service, and when the break comes, things loosen up and luxuriate as keyboards wind skyward before racing back to the close.

“That's one of the more contentious tracks,” Snider says. “It was really poppy, but [second guitarist Dave Knudson] mellowed it out. It's just a matter of trying to figure where that poppiness fit within the framework of the record. We knew that we wanted it to fit. But it also has an older, more post-punk vibe.”

Among the trickiest maneuvers a band can execute is to attempt to change and broaden their sound as they grow older without losing the audience that gave them their chance. Snider thinks the band's creative tension may help them negotiate that treacherous passage.

Omni kind of did what it was supposed to do in getting more of a broader audience,” Snider says. “I think this record will be exciting for the die-hards and the newer fans and hopefully accessible to some people that haven't heard the band before.”

Minus the Bear plays the Rave on Friday, Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. with Cursive and Caspian.
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