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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Indie Rock Profiles: Minus The Bear

Minus The Bear has perhaps been Seattle’s best-kept secret for nearly five years, now that bands like Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney and Death Cab For Cutie have all achieved some level of notoriety. A solid new record and spots on this year’s SXSW and Coachella Festivals could change all that. They may also have a star guitarist in the making as well; Dave Knudson’s finger-tapping style is unique among today’s guitar players-at least in the indie rock world. Knudson has drawn a slight comparison to Eddie Van Halen, though Knudson opts for complex, concentrated rhythms, and leads that are totally different from the metallic fury and wild fills the original shredder became legendary for. And the band has Erin, the most aggressive (male) drummer in the world. Minus The Bear quietly entered the indie rock scene in 2001 with an outstanding debut EP, This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, then followed it up a year later with the equally excellent debut album, Highly Refined Pirates. A couple of EPs and extensive tours followed, and after taking time off to record new material, the band is now back on the road to promote the product of those sessions, Menos El Oso, their second record for Suicide Squeeze Records, released in August of last year.

Menos El Oso is an experimental jet set of bouncy and mid-tempo guitar rock that is lightly decorated with electronic sprinkles and keyboard work, all of which makes for a distinct sound they can call their own. As on previous releases, the guitarists (Dave and Jake, who does double duty on vocals) team up with a restless rhythm section (Corey on bass, Erin on drums) to create music that is lively and groove-laden, semi-slow and technically complex, punk-influenced but not punk, catchy, and of course experimental. This time however, the band did away with the fifty second instrumental interludes, which on previous works either smoothly bled into subsequent tracks or interrupted the flow of the record.

The man responsible for the electronic elements of MTB’s sound, keyboardist Matt Bayles, opted to leave the band in late January-Alex Rose has since replaced him-to pursue a solo career. But his work is all over the album, including quiet organ flourishes on tracks like the bright yet heavy “Drilling.”

The heart of the Minus The Bear sound lay within the rest of the band. What is distinct and refreshing about it is that Jake and especially Dave Knudson use the upper half of their guitars to write many of their (best) riffs and intertwining melodies. The rollicking “Michio’s Death Drive” and “The Fix” are just two examples, the latter of which is also one of the few instances where Knudson at least hints at soloing the old-fashioned way.

The album isn’t perfect. Jake Snider’s lyrics could use a little more depth. Despite always amusing song titles, the subject matter doesn’t go much beyond drinking, girls, drinking with girls, and traveling tales. The band also proves you can have too much of a good thing: Minus the Bear lets the main melody shine for too long on “El Torrente.”

There are memorable instrumental passages (as on “This Ain’t A Surfin’ Movie”) and plenty of body movin’ tracks like “Hooray” and “Pachuca Sunrise,” but Menos El Oso comes up just short of memorable moments (lyrical/musical) to make it a truly great album. Minus The Bear is still a relatively young band. They’ve now made two very good albums, but their best may be yet to come.