An experimental indie rock band with psychedelic tendencies, swelled from solo project status, based in Brooklyn and with the word ‘bear’ in their name? Short of a four-part harmony and chillwave re-edit, it sounds like something a cabal of hipster bloggers might have thought up. In fact Bear In Heaven have been active since 2003, gradually refining their sound and influences – Flaming Lips-studded warped psych-pop, prog, dreampop, postmodern synthpop – into a subtle ethereality that keeps the progressive shifts live and lithe with tethering the songs down to mostly around four minutes. Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste has been a cheerleader for second full-length Beast Rest Forth Mouth. Leader Jon Philpot’s central vision, though, is more in the field of a Besnard Lakes, widescreen ambitions married to a melodramatic all-over wash.
The bombastic approach that takes its good time to fully emerge is certainly prevalent from the off with ‘Beast In Peace’, starting with little more than a constant thumping drumbeat before Philpot’s vocals enter, soft, high and reverberated. It takes the arrival of aereated synth hits to find an anchor for it all, which turns out to be a close cousin to Mew’s And The Glass Handed Kites in its aimed grandeur, insistent in its pulsing drive towards a resolution that never quite arrives. That pulse is important to the album’s best moments. ‘Ultimate Satisfaction’ sets off on a motorik journey through a choppy dreamstate that eventually turns into a wistful swirl of crashing drums – drummer Joe Stickney is on good driving form throughout – and muted exultation around the loaded phrase “coming down” before coming into land amid layers of buzzing and whirring synths. A lot of that is there again in ‘Defeaning Love’, suggested mantras evolving over shoegazing noise and arena sized insistent drumming to hypnotic effect, and ‘Casual Goodbye’, where elements of Giorgio Moroder production are dropped into the middle of hopeful space pop. ‘Dust Cloud’ takes six minutes to unwrap from monotone, single syllable vocals against woozy guitarscapes stolen from My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Isn’t Anything’ into a spaced out mid-section crashed into by a wall of huge overdriven guitars. Despite the laudable attempt to keep things moving and the sheer ambition to create melodic wash from discordant noise, it still feels as if the likes of (the loosely affiliated) School Of Seven Bells do that sort of thing much better.
And that’s the frustrating thing about Beast Rest Forth Mouth. Not only is there a nagging suspicion that they’re still trying various styles out for size, rather than formulate their own course between them all, but that they don’t like making it easy for themselves in the meantime. It’s an unconscious echo, but as this came out last year in the US, the bubbling synths and off-kilter, vaguely danceable melancholia of ‘Wholehearted Mess’ and ‘You Do You’ have already been superceded by Yeasayer’s Odd Blood, which does much the same in far more convincing fashion. Even regardless of others efforts, it doesn’t help that they’re tracks two and three, giving completely the wrong impression of the mood they’re trying to attain. For an attempt at early 80s new wave, with its undulating synth bassline and ruminations on youth, ‘Lovesick Teenagers’ works as a period piece, and to an extent as a mood piece, but is devoid of a strong enough hook to mirror its crossover ambitions. ‘Fake Out’ has another go and ends up worryingly close to Duran Duran, and nobody with ambitions of slow burning cinematic psychedelic shoegaze needs that in their resume.
In her SXSW reviews Jen Long recommended we see Bear In Heaven when they’re in the UK, and you can well believe that with the percussive insistence and reshaping of waves of noise they’re overpowering enough live. On record, though, they seem beheld by their influences and limitations. Philpot and cohorts clearly aren’t stunted for imagination, or eagerness, and there’s equal amounts of pop worthiness and stylistic reinterpretation within them. This, though, isn’t where they transcend their influences, merely give notice of what might happen if – no, just about more likely when - they plot out a way of marrying them all into a subtly cohesive, consistent whole.