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Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates

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Artist: Minus the Bear

Album: Highly Refined Pirates

Label: Suicide Squeeze

Review date: Jan. 23, 2003

Would You Rather Be 'Math Rock' Or 'Emo'?

Hailing from Seattle, Minus the Bear is a five-piece rock band cobbled together from the ashes of three local hardcore acts. On the various songs that make up their debut full-length, multiple guitars intertwine, the vocalist emotes sincerely, and bubbly electronics dance through the mix, as the songs bend around angular corners, occasionally reaching noisy crescendos but just as often trailing off into silence. Their sound has occasionally been described as "math rock" (remember that?), but the most convenient and direct place to slot the band is within the "emo" genre.

Emo is becoming increasingly popular, and with commercial success comes cultural validation, whether we like it or not. To the initiated, Highly Refined Pirates would sound, I imagine, like a winner from start to finish, full of hooks, shouted choruses about girls and shiny, hermetically-sealed production where even feedback sounds smooth. For those new to this sound, the appeal is somewhat elusive, as the songs don't really rock that hard, the guitars don't mesh as interestingly as they might on a Thrill Jockey release, and if you're over 16, it's just hard to swallow such callow lyrics about girls, girls, and more girls. Fugazi is constantly dropped as an antecedent to bands like this, which is interesting to consider, since virtually everything these bands subscribe to and produce is completely antithetical to both Fugazi's music and ideals. That said, one can see the link, especially in the attempt to introduce more sophisticated rhythms and textures into the basic post-punk format, but there seems to have been a crucial misunderstanding along the way. Fugazi's genius lies in its ability to introduce new textures and approaches into its already-established sound, thus allowing its music to mutate and evolve according to its own sensibilities. A great deal of emo, on the other hand, seems to be channeling the same basic pastiche, and it's difficult to see where the genre and the individual bands can take the sound without letting it become hideously dull or repetitive.

Again, it must be said that this is a genre which exists firmly in the love/hate spectrum of musical appreciation, and to those who aren't on the love end, trying to come to grips with emo is like trying to get your father to appreciate N.W.A. To those who love it, emo is powerful, immediate, uplifting music, and Minus the Bear is more than capable of achieving that kind of response. Songs like "Spritz!!!Spritz!!!" are particularly catchy, with focused guitar interplay and a nice ragged intensity to the playing that injects a much-needed sense of mess into the album. If the band can step up the complexity of its songwriting and push past the boundaries of its rather limiting genre, it could conceivably begin to make some memorable songs. Which would be nice, as it appears that emo is here to stay.

By Jason Dungan

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