Fugue | Review
My album, Fugue, reviewed by Matt Elliot. See Matt’s blog here.
After underground electronic artist Bear Like Mouse completed work on his debut album This Minus Okay, a sprawling, enticing and unique array of trip hop, acoustic guitar and dark metal, he immediately began working on material for the follow up, which would take his sound in an entirely new direction. While his debut was packed with highlights and took the listener on quite the emotional journey over its 70-minute length, there was always an underlying feeling that the artist himself was never quite perfectly content with the end product; in fact, the atmosphere created by those feelings of hopelessness and frustration may have actually added to the consistency of an album that could have otherwise felt overlong and scattered. Even as the debut was actually compiled of songs written over years of creative ups and downs, it was loaded with diverse new ideas, innovative methods to create sounds and memorable melodies, but lacked an overall sense of direction and flow.
Bear Like Mouse set out to refine his sound on Fugue, and he succeeds with flying colors. Whereas vocals and impressive layers of sound at times seemed forced and excessive on the first go round, his sophomore effort shows remarkable restraint and polish, resulting in an almost symphonic effect. He takes the best elements of his previous work and combines and expands on them here over nine tracks, content to let the complex electronic orchestration do the most of talking.
Fugue is the type of album that can accompany you on a long, peaceful car ride, can wake you up gently in the morning, or help your mind drift far off into the background. It can also make you think. This isn’t exactly “mood” music per se, it is too precise and delicate to be labeled as such, but it does boast an aura of calmness and confidence as it evolves. The completely instrumental opener “Nuclear” is gorgeous and patient, and when it builds into a gentle coda around the three minute mark, it doesn’t so much explode as it pulls the listener back in, comforting them almost as a promise of things to come.
There really isn’t a weak moment anywhere here nor does the album waver with its overall style, and the only time the mood seems to shift suddenly, it does so with dramatic and meaningful effect. Centerpiece “Dirge/M” is nine minutes of completely repetitive acoustic guitar and electronic piano instrumentation that builds so subtlely with its nuanced undertones- there’s elements of an electronic horn, a fluttering guitar noise, and a soaring, whispy bit of lifted distortion that beckons Godspeed You Black Emperor- that express the aftermath of a relationship that has died.
But the tone takes a sudden turn with the equally devastating but musically opposite “Saigon and On and On”, a spectacularly loud scream fest that hits the listener like a shot to the heart and ponders the meaning of life in not the fondest light. Synthesized drums and brooding electronic horn sounds combine as we hear high pitched lyrics such as “We are slaves/ We suffer the same”, “We suffer the sun/ To wait for a point” and the honest, most desperate line of all, “There’s got to be more.” Despite its authority and anger, pound for pound, this may be the saddest track in the entire Bear Like Mouse catalog, and that’s saying something for an artist that doesn’t exactly have a penchant for creating songs filled with sappy optimism.
Perhaps the album’s best stretch comes early on. The slowly building melancholy of “Of Bird and Bullet”, perhaps the most approachable and straightforward track here from a song structure standpoint, seems harmless enough until it explodes with screaming but spot on vocals through its massive crescendo and elevates itself to standout status. The tension is taken down a notch after that with “Capital B”, perhaps the most relaxing, beautiful song in the entire Bear Like Mouse catalog. This is the type of song that makes you want to sail into the sunset and just keep going, and it showcases an unusual time signature complete with electronic horns and an airy, atmospheric falsetto vocal through the chorus that is in perfect contrast with the nonchalant, almost spoken word vocal style of the verses.
There’s plenty of innovation here as well, including the impressive electronic synth loop towards the end of the steady “River”, and an electronic violin above a trip hop beat on the beautifully textured “Oslo Also”, the first genuinely optimistic Bear Like Mouse love song. Again, the vocals on both tracks are very subtle and almost unnoticeable, but provide melodic structure rather than interference with the music itself.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Fugue, and of Bear Like Mouse’s music in general, is the mystery behind the origin of some of these musical sounds. Penultimate track “Cleary and Crux” serves as the calm before the storm, with an addictive rolling percussion track, a repetitive clanking sound created from wires, cowbells and a drum stick above lifted vocals that seem just out of reach, kind of like how a song sounds in your brain right after you wake up from a musical dream. And it is all just a set up for the closer and highlight track, the 16 minute epic “Rue St. Anne.”
Beginning with an industrial grind and heavy percussion, this evolves into a call-to-arms masterpiece, with electric guitar swirling beneath massive, epileptic drum track change ups. This is the sort of song I imagine playing in my head before going into the deciding battle of a war, or before making a life or death decision, or some kind of a monumental, life-changing and ultimately serious event. In its final half, the considerable intensity surrenders into distorted shoegaze and eerie choral and violin notes that leave some uncertainty as to the outcome of the battle. And more relevently and poignantly, what exactly was the battle for in the first place? Perhaps only Bear Like Mouse himself knows for sure, but I’ll happily keep listening to figure it out for myself, even if I never do.