Originally released late last year and still garnering praise up and down countless indie top ten lists, Highly Refined Pirates from Seattle quintet Minus the Bear is a must-listen. Along with handful of other underground bands from the West Side, Minus the Bear is largely responsible for shaping and resuscitating the Emerald City's ever-evolving music scene.
On their first full-length album, these guys scale vast instrumental peaks and slosh through dark, vaguely disturbing lyrics to bring listeners to aural ecstasy. The opening math rock-influenced guitar lines set a precedent for the remainder of the album. But don't think for a minute that this is all geek-chic and inaccessible instrumental madness. Highly Refined Pirates (Suicide Squeeze Records) shines brilliantly as it combines obscure squeaks and blips from one guitar and lush, smooth and sensible chord progressions from the other. Most of the time, it's difficult to decipher where one single element of the band ends and another begins.
Just when you think you've figured this album for one thing, it winds up turning into something else. While the style and delivery are pretty much uniform, there are surprising tempo changes and occasional intrusions of interesting synth-like sounds. And the just plain rock 'n' roll will keep even the heads of ADD-types bobbing with the beats. One of the more memorable cuts on the album, "Monkey!!!Knife!!!Fight!!!" is a standout for its driving guitars and heavy rhythms. Singer Jake Snider's vocal abandon careens through the mix with the lines, "Yeah, windows down, wine in our heads, the city lights just blur, the city lights just blur," like the seemingly out-of-control life portrayed in the song. Snider's vocals are equally strong on the entire offering and are reminiscent of another northwest great, David Bazan of Pedro the Lion.
Instrumentally, Minus the Bear attack their music with technical know-how and a penchant for non-traditional arrangements. Drummer Erin Tate holds the backbone of the band in place with perfect time, as second guitarist Dave Knudsen (formerly of Botch) compliments the tunes with stuttering accents and obscure riffing. Highly touted Northwest producer Matt Bayles lends synthesizer subtleties and swells of electronic lushness to the mix. Rolling bass lines round out the punchy arrangements, and the individual and group efforts culminate in a convincing finished product.