Photograph by Sara Sanger
Rib-cage rattlers: Polar Bears like to go loud.
By Sara Bir
Some bands are driven both musically and organizationally; one of the members appoints himself as the band's internal manager and administrative assistant, performing the necessary but far-from-rocking tasks of sending out demos to record labels, booking shows and schmoozing with people who have potentially helpful connections to other people or institutions.
This is not the case with the face-melting Sonoma County trio Polar Bears. They play, and they play loud, and that is their top priority. That other stuff? It'll get done . . . eventually.
That's perhaps why their second release and first full-length album, The Future King, spent months in limbo, inches away from completion. The band--bassist and vocalist Benjamin Henning, guitarist and sometime vocalist Matthew Izen and drummer Shane Goepel--freely admit that when they began recording in early 2006, a plague of adversity made it difficult to deal with the recordings.
"We were really excited about making the new record," Izen recalls during a conference call from their practice space in Petaluma. "We got off to a good start. Shane did the drums in two days. We spent the next couple days doing bass [tracks]. We go to do my guitar tracks, and my amp shitted out. And every single day after that was totally off."
A frantic scramble to get the amp fixed was the first in a long line of setbacks--scheduling conflicts and lack of funds--that messed with the band's momentum. "It just turned into a big nightmare," Goepel adds. "Eight months later, we were talking about re-recording the whole thing. We were so close to getting done."
But finish they did. And in a way, the convoluted path to completing the album, which came out earlier this year, fits its theme; the songs on The Future King concern the notion of time travel, including its political and metaphysical repercussions. "It's kind of a concept record, but a very loose concept," Henning says. "The way I thought of it was using time travel as power. When we were starting to write this record, we were in the middle--and still are--of this war. Power and how wars repeat themselves forever was a big inspiration."
The band cite the film Primer, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Latin American magical realism as influences for the thematic component of The Future King. ("A Maker's Regrets" refers to a Borges story of God creating the world, only to realize when he's done that he's made a mirror image of his face.)
The album shows just how much Polar Bears have evolved as performers and songwriters since their 2004 EP Shorts Are for Warm, which was packed with jagged, stop-start technical hardcore infused with a playful dash of dance-punk. The songs on The Future King are more straightforward, but offer a more nuanced sense of melody and are embedded with intriguing nuggets of sonic exploration. And don't worry, it still sounds great--heck, better--played loud.
"On Shorts Are for Warm, each of the songs would have cool parts," Goepel says, "whereas with The Future King, it's more about how the songs relate to one another. We started off in this mindset of this technical, kinda mathy rock. I think The Future King is our straight-up rock record. We ditched the complicated timing, but at the same time added a bunch of weirder stuff that we didn't do before. Over time, we've come to improvise pretty well with each other. We've tried to use that as a ground for experimenting."
A sizable tour this fall is in the works, something the band have not undertaken in a number of years. Recently, Izen stepped down as the New Trust's guitarist, and he now has more time to devote to Polar Bears. "I was getting spread too thin being in two full-time bands, and I felt like I needed to concentrate on the Polar Bears stuff." he says. "This is my first love, as far as bands go. It's the first real band we've all been in. We've been playing together for a long time."
Henning says that, over time, "the three of us weeded out the other stuff. It's the perfect creative relationship in this particular situation."
A hearty component of that creative relationship is a shared love of volume; Polar Bears not only cherish their loudness, but flaunt it. And it's not loudness for the sake of loudness, but something deeper. "The actual physical presence of the volume--so loud you can actually feel your rib cage rattle?" says Goepel. "That's something that we all really enjoy in life."
By Sara Bir
Currently I'm working as a retail associate at a fancy-pants cookware store, a job I thoroughly enjoy with two major exceptions: the pay (low) and the music (shit). It's a chain store, and like many chain stores, they broadcast music from preset digital channels. My managers and co-workers, who are all intelligent people with functional senses of humor, bizarrely favor the Adult Contemporary channel, which is not so much a digital radio station as it is a 4-hour mix of the worst pop music offerings of the past 15 years. This means that, when I work an 8-hour shift, we hear two different Matchbox 20 songs two times each--a cruel and malicious fate for a company to foist upon its faithful sales associates. There's also a Coffeehouse Rock channel; the only difference between that and Adult Contemporary is that Coffeehouse Rock includes more songs from Shrek.
It is slowly wearing upon my soul. Mediocre-to-sucky music in small doses is tolerable, but hearing the same 100 crummy songs during the majority of waking hours can turn a person despondent and violent. Cripes, even the customers have been complaining about James Blunt.
This is why Santa Rosa's Polar Bears exist. I was at the end of my rope, my spirit too broken to rally its mistreated music receptors. Then, lo and behold, the fine young men of Polar Bears sent a copy of their newest CD, The Future King, and all became right with the world.
Polar Bears are the furthest thing from maudlin. The band--bassist/vocalist Ben Henning, guitarist/vocalist Matthew Izen, and drummer Shane Goepel--has progressed much during its six-year lifespan; The Future King is a fully-formed work, whereas their 2004 EP, Shorts Are for Warm, was more of a collection of aggressively technical but slyly funky songs that hinted at things to come.
"With Regards from the Doom of Society" opens the album with a determined, menacing guitar riff that sets the tone for all that follows. Polar Bears still break into a dancy beat (nicely evidenced on "A Maker's Regrets" and "A Queen and a Coffin"), but--even better!--they frequently lapse into some truly awesome arty improvisational shit, exploring negative space as much as they do positive space (there's an especially nice bit at the end of "Two Gates"). It's the sort of lovely implosion of sound that made daring, guitar-based bands like Fugazi and Sonic Youth so compelling: you get your hooks, your rock-outs, and your out-there experimentalism all in one expansive, unpredictable dose.
The lyrics are about time travel and the cyclical nature of evil. I can't understand the words as Ben Henning sings, or often screams, them, but the overall theme of the album is cool as all hell. Note that Polar Bears don't just scream; they harmonize and scream. Scream-onize, let's call it, and it's a very dynamic method for chewing the metaphysical fat.
And it sounds good loud. The Future King made me forget Rod Stewart's pathetically limp-dick cover of "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" Hundreds of Rod Stewart songs in the world--some of them great--and the cookware store picks that one. What happened to "Hot Legs"?
But passionate rock music is not good to shop to; it requires too much of a commitment from the listener. If a song is an amazing song, you can't help but cease caring about a $250 Le Creuset 5-quart casserole and start caring about nothing but that song. Rest assured that Polar Bears will not be rocking the cookware store anytime soon.
Find The Future King at the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa, or buy it directly from the band at one of their performances: www.myspace.com/plrbrrs.