There has always been something lacking from Minus the Bear albums. And this coming from a devout fan of the Seattle-based quintet. On their own, their 2001 debut EP, This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, and it’s 2002 follow-up full-length, Highly Refined Pirates, are scintillating sonic gems bursting with massive sing-along hooks and offbeat, yet deliriously catchy instrumentation. While on a surface level their music may appear as a fairly standard amalgam of driving anthemic rock and light-hearted emo, further inspection reveals a much more nuanced approach laced with atmospheric keyboard textures, quirky odd-time signatures and the occasional rump-shakin’ funk-disco beat. It’s fresh, frantic, uproariously fun stuff - and ferociously well-played.
So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, as anyone who has had the pleasure of witnessing Minus the Bear rock a stage can attest: the recorded pieces just can’t measure up to the ragged, raging intensity of the live show. Even the group’s latest offering - the versatile and more accomplished They Make Beer Commercials Like This EP - doesn’t quite bridge the chasm (although it comes perilously close with the hypercharged post-punk pyrotechnics of songs like “Fine + 2 Points” and “Let’s Play Clowns”). Indeed, it would seem that for all of Minus the Bear’s immense talent and songwriting prowess, some immeasurably crucial spark gets lost in translation.
I bring all of this up not as an indictment against the band’s studio efforts, which remain consistently engaging, but to provide an indicator of just how explosive and mesmerizing these guys are when you get them up in front of an audience. Especially if that audience happens to be packed tight into the dimly lit confines of a tiny club like Atlanta’s Drunken Unicorn where zealous fans can press up close and chant along - pumping their fists like maniacs - within arm’s reach of the band.
Opening with a spastic, full-throttle version of the angular scorcher “Thanks For the Killer Game of Crisco Twister,” Minus the Bear stormed into its set with fierce abandon, absolutely flooring the all-ages crowd with a nonstop flurry of sharp interlocking guitars, propulsive drums and pulsating bass. Virtuoso guitarist Dave Knudson (formerly of frenetic metalcore kings, Botch) struck his (un)usual balance between studied precision and frenzied passion, moving seamlessly from jaw-dropping finger-tapped melodies to blistering blasts of roaring power chords. But while that boisterous bit of bombast most certainly sent the crowd reeling, it was the band’s torrid rendition of “Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!” that knocked us all senseless. Bolstered by the cathartic strains of the killer chorus and propelled along by the rumbling grooves of the airtight rhythm section, the band seemed to ride the crest of our stupefied admiration, firing emphatically on all cylinders.
After that there was just no recovering. From the jubilant bounce of the spirited “Spritz!!! Spritz!!!” to the soaring power-pop of “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” to the pummeling fury of “Fine + 2 Points,” Minus the Bear’s aural assault was as mercilessly relentless as it was maniacally infectious. It seemed that every time the audience members would begin to clear the cobwebs and regain their footing, another riveting blast of hi-octane rawk would erupt to blow us all away. Mercy! Even more subtle and elegant material like the synth-spiked indie pop of “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo” and the ultra-spacey “I’m Totally Not Down With Rob’s Alien” seemed imbued with a simmering breakneck energy.
In a word: electrifying. Maybe it’s just my admittedly tiny sphere of experience, but barnstorming performances like this have become a rarity as of late. Yet, I’ve managed to catch Minus the Bear three times this year and every show has packed a similarly fantastic wallop. The group seems to have stumbled across a magic formula for performing live, a potent concoction that utilizes their ample ability and bursting-at-the-seams enthusiasm to tap into a kind of visceral kinetics. And it’s precisely this powder-keg dynamism that is missing from their studio recordings.
But let’s face it: capturing such an explosive, elusive, spontaneous state on a 2” reel or computer hard disk ain’t easy. If I didn’t know any better or were a tad more cynical, I might declare it damn near impossible. But this is the challenge that has been laid at Minus the Bear’s feet. This is the burden that they must somehow shrug off and overcome. This is the … well, hell, you get the point. And judging from their incendiary performance, I’d be willing to bet that Minus the Bear gets it too.