When we last left Seattle's indie superheroes Minus The Bear in 2005, they had just released the pseudo-self-titled Menos El Oso, a flawless math-pop album featuring perfectly tight compositions with tasteful guitar-tapping heroics set to danceable grooves. The album had such an impact, it even warranted a collection of remixes, Interpretaciones Del Oso, released in February. The writing was more complex and deliberate than their previous work, the songs more fully-realized with lush arrangements and catchy choruses.
The most striking change evident on their new album Planet Of Ice, is the loose and almost epic feel to the songs. The band is less concerned with formulaic structures and memorable hooks, and more focused on creating dense textures and soundscapes, trading in Menos El Oso's pop sensibilities for prog unison lines, thick vocal layering, and even the occasional guitar solo. Replacement keyboardist Alex Rose adds a new dimension to their signature sound, whether filling the space with subtle rhodes layering or soaring 70s sawtooth synth pads.
Where the spirit of experimentation was contained to brief playful moments on Menos El Oso, here it is decidedly more overt. In the dreamy dance track "Knights," what might otherwise be dismissed as a singular sour note on the guitar, is instead featured prominently, repeated several times and doubled at the octave, as if to tell the listener, "No, seriously, it's not a mistake." On the brooding epic "Dr. L'Ling," it's actually the tight vocal harmonies that ground the song and solidify the tonality, while dual guitar noodling and unison bends serve as accents, rather than the backbone of the song.
Side by side with the more experimental tracks are the catchy pop hooks we've come to expect from Minus The Bear. When vocalist Jake Snider sings "You must be an illusion, can I see through you?" on "When We Escape," it's a chorus you could listen to on loop indefinitely. The balance between infectious pop and meandering prog rock can't be easy to achieve, but the band somehow manages to pull it off, making the jump between the shimmering disco of "Throwin' Shapes" to the unabashed psychedelia of the nearly nine-minute "Lotus" without missing a beat.
I was fortunate enough to hear the song "Ice Monster" previewed on their last tour, and if that performance was any indication, this is definitely an album to be experienced live. In the end, Planet Of Ice will surely alienate a few fans, namely the ones who looked to the band for pleasant background party music, but that was never really what Minus The Bear was about. They're clearly in their element this time around, and they've been doing this long enough to afford themselves the opportunity to make the album they want.