Erin Tate sounds tired on the phone -- a bit groggy, his voice low and thick. Minus the Bear's drummer is on his way to one last rehearsal before the Seattle band shoves off to promote its new album, Planet of Ice, on notable indie label Suicide Squeeze. Perhaps he's feeling the burn of playing in a chops-heavy rock band, or bracing for the inevitable exhaustion of the road. But what Tate's really tired of is the jokes. Again with the jokes.
"When we first started, it was kind of a thing where we didn't really care about song titles, so it was like, 'Oh well, let's just make a joke out of it.'" He sighs. "That's still, to this day, all that is really ever talked about. No one ever really talks about what we're doing musically. So it just became this thing that was like, 'Eh, Minus the Bear is this joke band,' which we're really not. We're songwriters."
With Menos El Oso, Minus the Bear's previous full-length, the band, which formed in Seattle in 2001, decided to scale back the goofy song titles that marked earlier works. Like 2002's Highly Refined Pirates, which opened with "Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister."
"It was just time," Tate says. "We're almost veterans, either 30 or almost 30 -- old men playing music," he says, chuckling. Perhaps it's simply a byproduct of the big 3-0 mile-marker, but Planet of Ice plays like the kind of record you'd make after finally deciding to stop fucking around and really get hardcore about what it is you do, and what makes you tick. And what seems to make Minus the Bear's members tick at this particular moment is a certain chilly yet sexually charged interaction with the world ... and playing the crap out of their instruments.
On Planet of Ice, Minus the Bear proves itself a rare species indeed: a five-piece rock band that gets into your head and your pants simultaneously. Capable of dizzying complexity and -- especially in the two tapping hands of guitar hero David Knudson -- virtuosic flights of instrumental fancy, the songs retain sing-along musicality and almost physically blissful grooves, instead of veering into dork kingdoms of prog, art rock and nerd-metal.
Sure, there are weird time signatures, stops and starts, loads of odd sounds and some really long songs. But those find their balance in the cinematic keyboards of new guy Alex Rose; the dark sex-funk brought by Tate and bassist Corey Murchy; and the vocal finesse of Jake Snider.
Snider's voice, similar to Cave In's Stephen Brodsky circa Antenna, is what really puts over this batch of largely melancholic songs. It's remarkably believable when, over the Secret Machines-esque lurch of "White Mystery," he intertwines with the '70s vocal harmonies in a call-and-response: "Her body's over the covers / And there's nothing wrong with a single inch / And then we change positions / She got me on my back, losing my common sense." On "Dr. L'Ling," that frank sexuality looks inward, and doesn't necessarily like what it sees: "I was afraid / of becoming a casual business man / on matters of the heart ... or something even worse."
"The songwriting was definitely taking a darker, more dramatic turn, so we kinda just went with that," says Tate. "On some of the previous stuff, we kind of cut ourselves a little short, and made things tighter. With this record, we wanted to make it sound more like us playing music, and feeling free to let parts go on for a few minutes." Several of the songs do sprawl, and not just in length. "Ice Monster" sounds like a rock band reinterpreting a broody jazz number, while the single "Knights" and the opening track "Burying Luck" deliver with danceable pop hooks.
The album closes with "Lotus," an abstract eight-minute workout that encompasses furious noodling, global-political lyrics and, about halfway through, a Roger Waters-style guitar solo and some very Dark Side chord progressions. It's also Tate's current favorite. "To me, it just takes a different step that's interesting to me. Kind of experimental in an interesting way, but there's also a lot of songwritery stuff about it that I'm into," he says.
But while Minus the Bear may be already thinking about different steps, the rest of us need a little time to catch up with this major-league combination of psychedelic art rock and indie-pop vision. At times the album can almost too glossy and brainy -- as if, for example, the guitarist isn't so much playing with an arsenal of digital effects as they are playing him. And in truth, the instrumental chops can still get a bit nerdly. But those are some mighty fine cracks in this lustrous Planet of Ice.
Minus the Bear with Subtle and Ela. 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 29 (6 p.m. doors open). Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $14 ($16 day of show). All ages. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com