Bear In Heaven's Adam Wills thought the Brooklyn trio's new album, I Love You, It's Cool, was a certifiable dance record. Until some early reviews took him down a notch.
"All these people are reviewing the record, like, ‘It's almost ready for the dance floor!'" he says with a laugh. "Uh, to us, it's extremely ready for the dance floor, especially compared with the very first EP. It's like night and day."
He's right: Bear In Heaven's early work is more trance, less dance, relying almost entirely on ambient sounds at points. In 2009, the band's Hometapes debut, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, broke into solid synth-pop territory, and also broke the band into the Pitchfork crowd's consciousness. What began as a noise project was slowly being reverse-engineered into a buzz-worthy pop band, and that's not the easiest transition to make.
"We're trying to make music that is fun and not too heady — but still is heady," explains guitarist Wills, whose avant-garde cred includes stints with New York Downtown scene vets Rhys Chatham and Jonathan Kane. "We don't want to be overly complicated, but we're trying to find a balance."
The songs on I Love You aren't pop gems, per se; rarely do they fit a verse-chorus format. They're largely linear progressions of musical and lyrical thought. Internet single "Reflection of You" begins with a majestic, floating synth line anchored by Joe Stickley's mechanical drumming. Vocalist Jon Philpot, in his characteristically detached delivery, begins with vague observations ("Daylight won't stop the flashing lights / It feels like a thousand years have gone by without you"), then moves toward suggestive entreaties ("If you can dance with me / I think you will like my moves"). It's more than three minutes in that everything but a repetitive synth cuts out, and Philpot finally lays it on the line: "Dance with me, dance with me, dance with me."
Lest you think this is a straightforward club banger, be aware that just as he's begging for a dance, Philpot's vocals are pitch-shifted downward — he sounds a bit like a monster that's being vanquished, or a melting snowman. It's the quintessential Bear In Heaven moment, the kind that causes critics to say the band is almost dance-worthy.
In the two years since the band issued Beast Rest Forth Mouth, it's toured incessantly — for about a year-and-a-half before hitting the studio again — and dealt with the departure of bassist Sadek Bazaraa. (Bazaraa, who left the band on good terms, designed the new LP's characteristically trippy artwork, and inadvertently gave the record its name when, upon listening to some early mixes, he left Philpot a note that simply said, "I love you, it's cool.")
Rather than find a replacement bassist, the band carried on without one, picking up the slack as a unit. "Pieces of the songs are sampled, and either I'm triggering those samples with my feet, or Jon is playing Sadek's old bass lines while Joe is triggering stuff with drum triggers," Wills explains. "We've basically replaced Sadek with a robot."
"Part human, part robot" is probably another good description of Bear In Heaven. Persistent, sometimes backward-sounding beats, guitars and synth tones with outer-space delay effects, Philpot's friendly, opiate vocals ... it all combines to feel something like a hug from an automaton: comforting but disconcerting.
Philpot can be hypnotic. "Surrender your will / Surrender your self-control," he commands in the particularly sinister "Sinful Nature." At times, one might question his motives; is he musician, mystic or cult leader?
But Bear In Heaven always leads listeners back to a beautiful place: Even the album and song titles ("Kiss Me Crazy," "World of Freakout") suggest good vibes and nonchalant affection.
As the band moves away from the straight-up experimental and toward more cohesive pop, its members haven't lost their interest in challenging music — and they've found their own ways of dealing with the competitive world of indie music. In advance of this month's release of I Love You, It's Cool, the band announced in December that it would be streaming the entire album on its website. Which was true, if a bit deceiving; if you visit bearinheaven.com, you'll be treated to what could well be the sound of icebergs shifting, or Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs. It's the new Bear In Heaven album, streaming at a rate that's 400,000 percent slower than real time. (It will take about 5,000 hours to stream start to finish.)
It's a clever allusion to the recent trend of replaying popular tunes slowed down (like that viral Justin Bieber track) and a reaction against the information-scavenging nature of the 24-hour music-news cycle. But it's also a tip of the hat to some of the avant-garde minimalists the band's members admire. Like most things Bear In Heaven does, it's ambitious, it's a bit silly, and it's cool.