After a nebulous six years, Minus the Bear have returned from the void, bringing back with them a little darkness and the familiar twinkling stardust that makes their music shine. Their first studio album since 2012’s Infinity Overhead, Voids marks a pivot point for the band creatively, professionally, and personally.
In the wide swath of time between the two albums, Minus the Bear were by no means AWOL. They released their second collection of acoustic versions of various songs (Acoustics II, 2013) and a compilations of B-sides and previously unreleased material (Lost Loves, 2014). Sprinkle in a few tours and some new additions to the band’s families, and it’s easy to see where the time has gone. This is not to mention that Minus the Bear also recently chose to sack most of their behind-the-scenes team (manager, business manager, et. al.) and, after a two-album absence, returned home to Suicide Squeeze Records dancing to the tune of $20 million.
However, the most significant shakeup came in January 2015 when the band announced that due to personal and creative differences, drummer and founding member Erin Tate would no longer be a part of the band, and was replaced by Kiefer Matthias. This forced the band to rework their entire writing and recording process. They went so far as to throw out new material they had written with Tate prior to his departure in favor of a clean slate with Matthias. Being forced to start over might cripple the creative momentum of lesser bands, but Minus the Bear emerged from uncertainty with renewed energy, despite some nagging growing pains.
Although the band adapted well overall to the upheaval of the last few years, there persists a darkness, a heaviness of spirit, on Voids that previously had only cameo appearances in their body of work. While Infinity Overhead and Omni (2010) of course had their moments of melancholy, Minus the Bear’s trademark light touch tended to prop it up. A calculated patience and occasional quietness filled in the gaps, and distortion tended to be a dirty word.
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With Voids, there’s an increased emphasis on songs with teeth, although that’s certainly not the case with the whole album. “Lighthouse” and “Erase” definitely retain the airy, dramatic qualities of the synth-focused, space-age Planet of Ice. But tracks like “Robotic Heart”, largely led by an aggressive synth lead built over driving drums and guitar work, show a different side of the band. Additionally, “Call the Cops” is a significant departure from the polyrhythmic, mathy sound that makes up the bulk of Minus the Bear’s discography, and lacks entirely the bouncing hooks frequently found therein.
That said, Voids is, in general, a much more straightforward and less experimental composition than fans are used to. References to Menos el Oso-era complexity and the guitar-tapping of Infinity Overhead are more peripheral. Those clever accents, rather than be the focus of movements in a song, sometimes take on a supporting role filling in the smallest gaps in the warm, dense production. This is bittersweet. It allows the listener to discover new details with every listen, but it can at times feel slightly claustrophobic. Such is the case of “Give & Take”, which makes one pine for the more delicate and spacious moments.
One of those moments is the first single, “Invisible”, which nails the balance of parts that make Minus the Bear such a fun band. Loopy guitar riffs, textured synths, and a standout chorus (the line “I know how long it’s been” hits just the right way). This one is a knockout. In the same vein, “Tame Beasts” takes on a familiar computerized melody that bounces along its verses to a wide-open chorus, letting in a little air before a thoroughly enjoyable synth solo. The energy is there throughout without being overwhelming.
With themes of loss, romantic tumult, sleeplessness and more, Voids is markedly more frustrated and occasionally somber, in a lyrical sense, than much of Minus the Bear’s back catalog. “Invisible” clearly deals with the issue of a friend with a drinking problem (“In a bar where no one knows you / There’s no one to help you when you don’t want to help yourself”), which is decidedly confrontational. The aforementioned romantic loss and turmoil rear up in “Last Kiss” (“Yeah, I think it’s time to fight / Pushing the volume feels so right”) and “Erase” which starts off with singer Jake Snider crooning in falsetto, very matter-of-factly and true to the title, “I don’t want any memory of you, no”. Elsewhere, “What About the Boat?” chronicles a night in the life of an insomniac, and strategies to invite sleep which include pills and whiskey. On paper, Voids can be a little depressing.
For what it lacks in the fretboard gymnastics and dynamism of records past, Voids compensates with energy and consistency, the success of which is varied but acceptable. It’s definitely not the catchiest or most memorable album for Minus the Bear. They’re a talented band, though, so even the lower points are still great fun. On one hand, this is a step in a different direction for the band, however cliche that might sound. Given the major lineup change and housecleaning behind the scenes, it’s fair to say that this band, who have long been set in their creative ways, are a little out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, the outcome is encouraging. Voids isn’t a reinvention, but it is a testament to their adaptability. It’s a fresh angle on the band’s own sound and reflects the band’s renewed excitement for music in general. If you were to try to introduce a friend to Minus the Bear, you should absolutely start them off somewhere else. But for staunch fans, Voids is a satisfactory entry into the band’s formidable body of work.
Voids is available March 3rd on Suicide Squeeze Records.