Bearsuit - The Phantom Forest

by Darren Loucaides Rating:7 Release Date:2011-03-14

In April 2009, about a year after the release of Bearsuit's second LP, Oh:Io, guitarist and songwriter Iain Ross poured out the most impassioned blog post that I have read (at least on MySpace). Three long-term Bears had recently departed, and despite all Oh:Io's talk of 'keeping it together' and 'staying alive', the band's 10-year-old flame almost flickered out for good. There'd been lots of fun over the decade - countless shows, many a costume, several devout radio DJs, John Peel not least among them, and, of course, the colourful originality of their music rising like mighty peaks over a too-often dull landscape. But there'd also been little mainstream recognition and even less financial remuneration; Bearsuit were battered and bruised, made weak by time and fate, as Tennyson put it. Iain was telling people, in a Danny Glover voice, "I'm too old for this shit".

But as he explained, he just couldn't give it up: "Lisa, Jan [the other two surviving members] and I can't stop the rock. We just can't control our feet. Ten years we've been doing this…and still there's this constant nagging; either an artistic calling, or some kind of reaction to talcum powder. I still can't stop writing songs. I've really tried. I even buried my guitars under piles of star wars toys and didn't look at them for ages."

So Bearsuit survived, and here's the result, their long-awaited third tome, The Phantom Forest. It's easy to see the plight of a windswept ship sailing on in the face of adversity under cover of the album's endearing song plots: crash-landing in an exotic land, liberating albino tigers, wrestling a bird demon queen. There's a no-nonsense feel to the front end of the record, a sense that the band really mean business, with the first three songs - 'Princess, You're a Test', 'A Train Wreck', and 'Please Don't Take Him Back' - all powerful blasts. New members Joe and Charlene are the engine room, the precision and skill of their drums and bass driving forward a darker, sexier sound.

But after the incongruous 'When Will I Be Queen?' - a psychotic-sounding exercise in synth-pop - and one or two clumsy indie-rock numbers, I'm unsure about this record. 'Jim Henson's Creature Workshop' is screechy and frantic, never rewarding you by going anywhere, while 'Giant Archaeopteryx' is perhaps my least favourite Bearsuit song; grandiose name, sure, but it's just one riffy idea pointlessly stretched over two-and-a-half minutes. Do the classic indie-pop ingenuity and that professional 'engine room' marry well? I worry that, in the search to derive success from a decade of travails, Bearsuit have opted to be something they're not. It feels like Tony Blair dragging Labour kicking and screaming towards the centre ground…

Well, no, it's not like Tony Blair. For one thing, The Phantom Forest improves with time, charming its way into your affections the further you delve. And once you accept that this is a different Bearsuit, no longer cramming 100 ideas into two-minute songs, there's a maturity and deftness to much of the album that's genuinely promising. 'Albino Tiger Rescue Squad' is dirty and catchy: a couple of guitar hooks, a sultry vocal, and bam! - there's a song. 'Cut Loose' deploys that thrilling Bearsuit knack for motivational speaking: "We'll never make it if we never try!" Iain wails, a la Oh:Io's 'Stephen Fucking Speilberg', while the central melody is simple and instinctual, no need of erratic, unexpected detours. This is a tighter approach to songwriting, much of the usual excess edited out. Gone are the brass and woodwind. The potential in this strategy is proved by 'Ghosts of the Black Hole', which is at once delicate and rich.

Iain said in April 2009 that the band would change under the influence of the new members. A listen to The Phantom Forest proves this an incontrovertible fact. Fans of Bearsuit at their most twee - see 'Cherryade' or 'Diagnoal Girl' from debut LP, Cat Spectacular - be warned: this is a trimmer, more focussed Bearsuit. They've closed ranks, toughened up. Though the album isn't perfect, it's a statement, a base from which to launch future operations. Bearsuit are dead. Long live Bearsuit.

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