It’s surprising how often a band’s name can drastically influence your assumptions about their music. Sometimes before you even hear a single note. It’s not like this is some bold revelation, as bands have been judged by their names (and covers, for that matter) since music began finding its way into people’s hands. For every band that validates this supposition—it’s safe to say that you have a pretty firm grasp on what kind of music a band like Cannibal Corpse makes before you pop that CD into the player—there are bands that prove to be a bit more circumspect in this regard. Hailing from Fayetteville, AR, Bear Colony are such a band. It was in their naturalistic, almost home-y name that my assumptions were proven incorrect. Instead of the bucolic, workman-like acoustic musings, which were my original assumption, the band makes dense, intricately layered indie rock that suggests the boundaries between musical genres are not as impenetrable as we’ve been lead to believe. Their wholesale bartering of numerous musical trademarks makes for a fascinating and incredibly satisfying listen, not to mention that it’s one of the most instantly gratifying albums I’ve heard this year.
Soft Eyes is dedicated to lead singer Vincent Griffin’s mother, who passed away in September from lung cancer. A very noticeable familial presence hovers over these songs, as each seems informed of the need to understand and preserve, as well as mend, those close-knit connections with family and friends. But rather than wading around in stretches of obsessive mourning and overly simplistic platitudes concerning mortality, the band approaches these songs through a much more optimistic, though still pragmatic viewpoint, and far from being too saccharine or overly irreverent, these songs take a candid look at what loss means to Griffin. By channeling this sorrow through these 13 songs, Griffin and the band, find a sense of closure that feels impressively hard-earned.
Our quick introduction to Bear Colony’s sonic predisposition comes in the form of “We Don’t Know Harm I,” a song which overlaps Griffin’s affecting vocals with soaring guitar distortion, strummed acoustic guitars, and drums that sound like they were ripped from some cathartic military processional. It comes as no surprise that the first line of the record—“after we’re dead and gone/what’s left of our souls”—deals with a fundamental question about death. In the cacophonous swirl of the track, it’s possible that the band is making some statement about the confusion that comes when something like this happens—the constant bombardment of emotions and difficult circumstances that play out in various ways. This sense of condensed emotion can at times border on being overwhelming and there really is no simple way to handle it. As such, the band makes no attempt to control it. They simply seek to channel it into something constructive.
From the initial obvious comparisons to early Modest Mouse and The National on boundless rocker “Bad Blood” to the skip-start electronics and synths of “A Ladder to the Clouds,” Bear Colony seem to understand the finer points of hitting our musical pleasure points without ever overstaying their welcome. If lyrics like “everyone‘s got something to hide/keep the same face/fuck what’s inside” (“Bad Blood”) and “it fell out of my mouth and into the air/an archive of memories died when we gutted the stairs” (“Youth Orchestra”) aren’t enough to prove that the band is working through some serious shit, then you might as well stop reading right now.
Album highlight “Flask Report” seems drawn up from equal parts 80’s velvet dream pop and indie dance rock, with Griffin’s voice casually floating among vibrant beats, subtle electronic flourishes, and occasionally jagged guitar lines. The shorter dissonant instrumental “Cult of No Sleep” threatens to unfurl into nothingness but the band manages to inject a tangible sense of dread and anticipatory anxiety into its brief runtime. The same goes for “I Sing Mountains” with its layers of distortion and buried percussion. Even though “Break Bones” officially ends the album, and is absolutely a great slice of indie rock distortion, thematically the whole record feels bookended by opening track “We Don’t Know Harm I” and back-end cut “We Don’t Know Harm II.” The two songs share practically the same lyrics but come at them in different ways and with a definite sense of overall change. I think that’s the point which Griffin is trying to make—that even in the hardest struggles we face, we generally end up relatively close to where we began. It’s only our outlook that has changed. We’ve had no lack of albums in years past (Hospice by The Antlers and Electro-Shock Blues by Eels readily come to mind) that seem to have a need to cauterize death and any associated feelings, but Bear Colony understand that it takes more than a refusal to acknowledge these feelings or a sterile mindset to keep going in the wake of some catastrophic loss. Whatever your coping mechanism is, you damn well need one at times like this.
Bear Colony’s mixture of buzzing indie electronics and wide-eyed pop enthusiasm could easily have made the album an interminable slog to wade through, but the band keeps things moving and wisely never commits to one idea for very long. This quick shift through different sounds and genres allows them to keep their balance when a lesser band could have been swallowed up by the urge to overindulge in trendy musical escapism. Similar in terms of how the recent Passion Pit record merged indie kid obsession for all things dance with an ear toward overtly sticky melodies, Bear Colony’s ability to take relevant musical trademarks and twist them to fit their needs means that Soft Eyes never has to apologize for its approach to post-dance indie rock, nor does it ever concede its influences. While the album does seem to function as a form of therapy for Griffin and the band, it never veers into maudlin territory, and above all things, it celebrates life and the connections that we make therein. By admiring a life well-lived–in this case Griffin’s mother–the band shows that catharsis doesn’t necessarily need to be pulled screaming from the inside out, (though that can still happen occasionally) but that it can be coaxed willingly and without all the emotionally insecurity that often goes along with that process. Soft Eyes is proof of that.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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