Photo by Shervin Lainez/Bradley Hale

Minus the Bear Returns From the Void

With their new album, the Seattle mainstays don’t change the formula, but build on their history.

Does it come back to you when you hear some song?” Minus the Bear vocalist Jake Snider sings on “Give & Take” from their new album, VOIDS, out March 3. For many fans, this lyric could describe the feeling of hearing Minus the Bear hits like the shimmering “Pachuca Sunrise” or the jittery math-rock riffs on “Knights.” Those songs are like time capsules, transporting a listener right back to the heyday of the early aughts, when flash mobs were cool and shutter shades were making a comeback.

Consistently working as a band for 15 years, Minus the Bear’s longevity can be easily taken for granted. Still, they haven’t released a proper record since 2012’s Infinity Overhead. That doesn’t mean they went away, they’ve just been living in the past—not in an Uncle Rico “Back in my day I could throw a football over those mountains” glory-days kind of way, but in a careful, respectful immersion in their back catalog. They dug through their B-sides for the 2014 compilation Lost Loves, reissued their They Make Beer Commercials Like This EP, and ventured out on an anniversary tour for their beloved breakthrough record, 2005’s Menos el Oso. This has given fans plenty of time to reacquaint themselves with the band.

“We’d been working for a long time and kind of had this unexpected break in the flow of the band as a project,” Snider says. “We had to fill that up again with getting a new drummer and kind of restarting the business side of the band.”

VOIDS represents both the band’s past and future. It’s a homecoming of sorts—their first record back on the Suicide Squeeze label since 2007’s Planet of Ice. But it’s also a fresh start. Between now and their previous record, the band lost drummer Erin Tate and brought in Kiefer Matthias to fill in on tour and in recording sessions—although Snider notes that Matthias, too, is no longer in the band. “Everything does kind of feel like getting back into something again. Hopping back into the old way of life,” Snider adds.

On VOIDS, the band sounds reinvigorated. Stylistically, there aren’t many major departures—but that’s not the point. Instead of trying to change the formula, Minus the Bear has worked over a decade and a half to perfect their sound. One of the band’s strongest assets has been that well-defined sound: futuristic riffs that seem to bounce across the fretboard, Snider’s steady vocals, and a punchy rhythm section that holds it all together. That’s still true. From the first few seconds of VOIDS opener “Last Kiss,” with reversed loops building into jumpy rhythm guitar, it all sounds so unmistakably Minus the Bear. Lead single “Invisible,” with its big hooks that can be shouted along with after only a single listen, would feel comfortable on Menos el Oso. “We’re still the same four dudes … and we’re gonna sound like the same four dudes, but with a little fresh sauce on top,” Snider says of the record, referencing the core members who’ve been in the lineup since 2006 (sans drummer).

There is some evolution to be found here, though. While Snider doesn’t describe himself as a confessional songwriter, opting to let fans decide for themselves what his lyrics mean, a close examination of the lyric sheet reveals just how much he’s matured as a writer. Many of the nautical and coastal themes he’s explored on past records are fully represented on VOIDS—the reflection of a lifetime in the Pacific Northwest, he says—yet here he uses that imagery to explore despondency. On “What About the Boat?” he describes stirring crushed sleeping pills into whiskey, aptly drawing on the metaphor of a sinking boat to evoke the feeling of being alone and wanting to forget about it. He echoes these feelings on the closer “Lighthouse,” cooing over a brooding bass line, “My memory taking like the violent sea/Try to swim/The ocean sinks this vessel me.”

In many ways, the voids of the title would seem like the visceral emptiness described in these songs. But Snider reveals that another gap is being referenced here: “The record fills the void that we’d been going through,” he says, reflecting on those five years away from the studio. That time offered them a new start and a chance to come back—not transformed, but renewed. Minus the Bear In-Store Performance, Sonic Boom Records, 2209 N.W. Market St., Free. All ages. 6 p.m. Fri., March 3.

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