Musicians and non-musicians are always going to hear certain bands differently. Ask someone listening to Primus, Rush, or Coheed and Cambria if they’re musicians and more often than not the answer is yes. The complexity these talented songwriters bring to their music has a way of being off-putting to non-musicians – the songs are dense, complex, and frequently change tempo. It’s music that is, sadly, frequently described as “math rock” by subtle detractors or dismissed as “prog rock” by the harsher critics.
Despite their complexity, some bands such as Seattle’s Minus the Bear manage to rub both musicians and non-musicians the right way. While MtB’s songs are by no means as complex as the bands listed above, musicians recognize and appreciate the stutter-step timings, layered sounds, and intricate guitar work, whereas non-musicians hear solid rock music that also manages to make you nod your head, if not tap your feet. In fact, it’s something of a surprise the band isn’t bigger than it is, though one could blame continuing backlash against Seattle bands for that. There’s also a certain ambience to Minus the Bear’s music that some might find off-putting or even depressing.
The quintet’s fifth album, Infinity Overhead, generally doesn’t stray from the formula. The elaborate layering of guitars and synths is still there, clear and polished as ever thanks to the production of former band member Matt Bayles. Songs like “Diamond Lightning,” with its reversed guitars and almost symphonic wall of sounds, remain at their heart enjoyable pop songs. “Lies and Eyes” kicks off with a disco-like catchiness before changing gears into a slightly more ambitious could-be radio hit.
The album succeeds as much if not more than MtB’s previous releases because of its balance. Early albums featured more guitar-oriented rock, whereas 2007’s Omni ventured more into electronica. Infinity Overhead never strays too far in either direction. The album’s opener, “Steel and Blood” is a guitar driven rocker with only minimal help from the keyboards. Ditto “Toska,” one of the faster jams on the record. “Listing,” on the other hand, is an acoustic/electronic number that scales things back.
In fact, the balance might be too good. For all their complexity, there are few songs on Infinity Overhead that stand out. Some, such as the slow dirge “Heaven is a Ghost Town” are dangerously close to being post-grunge exercises in boredom. “It’s so dark at night / and since they outlawed love it gets too cold,” wails guitarist/vocalist Jake Snider in his best emo impression.
Ironically the album’s best song might be its closer, “Cold Company.” A frenetic mix of high-on-the-fretboard riffs and crunchy chords, the songs veers in a number of different directions but never slows down. As you acclimate yourself to what you’re hearing, it changes gears and goes somewhere else, being alternately a fantastic pop song as well as “math rock.” That can be said of Infinity Overhead as a whole; it does enough things right to at least keep your attention if not make you love the band.