Indie rock has such a broad definition these days that it’s almost meaningless as a description of a type of music. There are countless bands toiling in obscurity, playing shows before tiny crowds and putting out music either on their own to sell at gigs and online, or via one of the innumerable small independent record labels. In this age of ubiquitous Internet access, consumers have more musical options than ever before, making it increasingly difficult for a band to break through the noise and earn their chance to be heard by a wider audience.
If anybody deserves that chance, it’s the Arkansas-based indie collective known as Bear Colony. Their debut album, “We Came Here to Die,” is out now on Esperanza Plantation records, and it’s a strong record that just might get Bear Colony positive attention on a national level.
“We Came Here to Die” doesn’t have any of the aloof coolness or twee sentimentality that one might normally associate with indie rock; Bear Colony is much more direct and visceral. Vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Vince Griffin leads the band through the 11 angst-ridden tracks with emotions high and fever-pitched. It’s not always an easy listen because it feels so confessional and personal, like tormented private diary entries set to music, but it’s consistently compelling.
Sonically, “We Came Here to Die” is a creative blend of sweeping guitar and rather grand melodies matched with precise, tightly-wound rhythms. There are also just the right electronic touches, a flourish with a keyboard here, a light brush of an orchestral arrangement there… nothing to distract or detract from the song, but sufficient color to keep the sound interesting and fresh.
Bear Colony often marries upbeat musical and melodic elements with dark lyrics, as on the deceptively sunny opening track “Sharks.” Like much of the album, there are interesting and unexpected time changes as the track goes from a swift electro-shuffle during the verse, to a dense and emotive chorus featuring “Pablo Honey”-era Radiohead guitar lines. “Hospital Rooms Aren’t for Lovers” is another study in contrasts, with its chipper electric guitar pattern, buoyant acoustic guitar and perky rhythm, paired with lyrics that sound like Kurt Cobain at his bleakest as Griffin chants about “vultures spinning around the room." Somehow the combination works, and “Hospital Rooms” is one of the album’s signature tracks.
One of the stronger melodies on the album is “I’m Not Brave,” which features a nice lilting guitar line, and a hint of strings. The melancholy “Sinking Ships” is so bare it almost sounds like a demo, but the rawness adds to the immediacy of the track, and the vocals are among the best on the album.
Perhaps the finest moment is “The Boy with Broken Arms.” Rhythmically, it’s reminiscent of the sinister mechanical tribal marches of The Cure’s “Pornography” album. The listener can hear and feel the desperate frustration in the song, the fervent need to break through doors that are unyielding. The instrumental break in the middle of the track saps a bit of its strength and momentum, but that’s a minor complaint. Griffin gives his all vocally on the song, as he does throughout the entire album. Nothing is held back. “We Came Here to Die” is worth picking up for this track alone.
The album closes with the somber acoustic “Aeroplanes and Cocoons," which feels like the exhausted recognition of dawn finally arriving after a long turbulent night. “We Came Here to Die” seems to be less about confronting inner demons than allowing them to burst free and bubble to the surface, if only for a short time. As cathartic as these songs are on CD, hearing them translated on stage must be an utterly intense experience.
It can be a daunting challenge to sort through the massive number of indie bands to find the wheat amongst the chaff. There are seemingly endless flavors of the moment that get raves on hipster music blogs for a few weeks and then are promptly forgotten into oblivion. Bear Colony is the type of band that could easily get swallowed up in this information overload, but their originality and the strength of Vince Griffin’s songwriter should allow them to stand out and get noticed. “We Came Here to Die” is another reason to dig deeper than just what the major labels decide to feed the mass consumer, and to seek out something that might not jump right out at you from the garish CD displays in the music section of your favorite mega-mart.