For most musicians the release of a fourth album is accompanied by the dizzying heights of responsibility. That a project has been supported to such a milestone figure suggests fans will have blindsided devotion and absurd expectations in equal measure. They’ll defend the band nail and tooth, but in return they’ll want the music to have progressed beyond the techniques used on the act’s debut. They’ll also want an element of the signature sound they first fell in love with to remain. To survive the benchmark; the album has to be at once radical and grounded, expected and exceptional, breathtaking and engulfing, familiar and refreshing, sharp and complete. Before they even entered the recording studio, Bearsuit were under a lot of pressure to deliver the goods on The Phantom Forest.
In a strange twist of fate, the band’s history gives them a leg up. Since their inception in 2000, Bearsuit have undergone radical line-up changes. Founding member Emma Belka lasted only a year on drums; her departure was the first in a long line, and the most significant, until the mass exodus of 2008 that saw Richard Squires, Matt Hutchings and Cerian Hamer leave the band. Despite those hiccups, Bearsuit haven’t lost sight of what they set out to achieve. They’re still the alternative to your average four-man-band and they still yelp hysterically in the face of convention. Most importantly of all they’re still fun, as The Phantom Forest’s ‘When Will I Be Queen?’ and ‘Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop’ prove.
But what of that underlying DIY ethic and British austerity that originally attracted us to them? In their formative years they were seen as a sort of salvation from mainstream indie music. The hair rising, cat howling, marching band goodness of debut Cat Spectacular and sophomore Team Ping Pong hasn’t been whitewashed away from The Phantom Forest, but the album has definitely been buffered up. The end of Bearsuit’s tracks used to crackle and hiss, but they’ve since honed their marketing mitts to paw triumphantly at critical approval. Personally I’ve never had a problem with the lo-fi aesthetic, but others have, and Bearsuit have developed their production techniques accordingly. Unfortunately they haven’t quite got their leg over the tricky task of democracy: what made their early material sparkle like the melted remains of a cassette tape has been removed from The Phantom Forest. The handy work of producer Gareth Parton will please Bearsuit’s critics, but it’ll disappoint their die hard audience.
As for the songs themselves – The Phantom Forest does not lack versatility. The album is coherent, but opener ‘Princess, You’re a Test’ is the extreme opposite of ‘A Train Wreck’. Likewise ‘Albino Tiger Rescue Squad’ is a million miles away from the frankly sweet ‘Ghosts of the Black Hole’. Bearsuit strive to document every interest and aspect of their creativity on this record, and because of that it’s a success – but it’s not the overpowering declaration of superiority a fourth album needs to be, because it doesn’t demonstrate a band who Know What They’re Doing. If this were a debut, we’d all be waving our arms and roaring the triumphant scream of an advancing platoon. Bearsuit have been around for over a decade; and The Phantom Forest could spell the start of a mutiny propelled by impatience.