Because Minus the Bear occasionally mixes up its time signatures or explores and exploits the boundaries of rock, the Seattle five-piece is almost always saddled with the “math rock” label. The band’s second LP, Menos El Oso, doesn’t necessarily shake off that tag. With its technical proficiency, encompassing (if redundant) themes, and musical accessibility, Menos El Oso does prove that labels are useless for a band this talented. But what’s really preventing Minus the Bear from making a breakthrough with El Oso is the band’s unwillingness to head in new directions.
Formed from the remains of Botch, Sharks Keep Moving, and Kill Sadie, Minus the Bear has, over two albums and three EPs, developed a distinct sound, one not easily categorized. Guitarist Dave Knudson’s clean, often finger-tapped or arpeggiated lines and Matt Bayles’s keyboard and synth work provides the high-register electro-fiddling (Bayles is also a respected producer, with Pearl Jam, Botch, and Isis as credits). Singer/guitarist Jake Snider, drummer Erin Tate and bassist Cory Murchy hold down the bottom end with military precision, moving smoothly from the syncopated near-hip-hop of “The Game Needed Me” to jazzy interludes and thrashing choruses, often in the same song (“Hooray”). There’s a bit of These Arms Are Snakes, some leftover Botch, even some hip-hopped Modest Mouse. But mostly it’s a sound all their own.
What puts Minus the Bear at the top of the game is not this eclectic mix of styles but a single, cohesive musical sensibility. Between interwoven guitar trickery and Bayles’s studio enhancement, the songs on Menos El Oso are never sacrificed. Some “math rockers” — System of a Down, the Mars Volta, Rush — delve into odd time signatures and complex arrangements on a larger scale. But when the members of Minus the Bear turn the beat around (“Fulfill The Dream”) or open a track with a guitar intro like some tweaked out Atari 2600 (“The Fix”), they always show restraint, never letting their penchant for the strange and complex interfere. And “Pachuca Sunrise,” with its beautiful descriptive lyrics, heartfelt delivery and dance-funk chorus, shows that when it’s time to bring it down and keep it simple, they can do that, too.
Still, everything on El Oso has been done before — by Minus the Bear. The descending melodic line in the bridge of “Hooray” is almost to the note the same as that on “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo,” from 2002’s Highly Refined Pirates. Snider isn’t breaking any new ground lyrically, either. The same themes from past albums — road trips, girls, drugs — are again mined here. The results are strong but reminiscent. Snider’s earnest stories and promises sound more like continuations than original sentiments. From “Memphis & 53rd”: “I said, ‘We’ll leave now, you can pack our things/ Let me get the bill, and I can make it straight.’/ It was the same as yesterday.”
It doesn’t always stray from the band’s repertoire, but Menos El Oso sticks to a formula that still remains pretty much its own. And despite all the members’ sonic explorations and technical wizardry, it’s the simple chorus on “The Fix,” that is the album’s standout, with Snider yelling “So this is the difference between/ Living and not living!” It’s an understanding, as in a revelation, that sometimes the straight path is best.