Minus the Bear is nothing if not reliable. For years the band has earned a reputation as one of Seattle’s tightest and most technically gifted bands. Its complex interplay of winding guitar licks and math-rock grooves have landed the band in the indie-rock spotlight on more than several occasions. But those guitar hooks have always had more pull than the lure of the actual tunes – that is, until Planet of Ice.

While Minus the Bear have come a long way since the days of song titles like “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister” (2002’s Highly Refined Pirates) or “You’re Some Sort of Big, Fat, Smart-Bug, Aren’t You?” (2004’s Bands Like It When You Yell “YAR!” At Them [EP]). On Planet of Ice, the instruments are still pulling the lyrical dead weight. Even when the tone shifts to a chillier, darker climate, the music is still cozy.

The admirable lead vocalist and guitarist Jake Snider has a tendency to slip into The Mars Volta-land where the only thing more ambiguous than the lyrics is David Knudson’s guitar work – the missing link between David Gilmour and Sega Game Gear.

While Snider may want you to think you’re trapped, isolated on a glacial sphere and light years away from the sun – which, apparently, based on the band’s silhouettes in the liner notes, is where the promo shots took place – it all comes off as a bit of a stretch. Aren’t these the same dudes who told me, “You kill bugs good, man”?

Still, Planet of Ice yields some of MTB’s most creative excursions. On “Burying Luck,” Knudson sputters out sheets of warbled sound; ace drummer Erin Tate adds some well-placed clicks and clacks and keyboardist Alex Rose delivers the missing ingredients in the form of tactful counterpoint. Mammals don’t play much tighter than this.

There remains few cringe-worthy lyrical moments. “I owe you, don’t I? / A little light today, but tomorrow, oh tomorrow . / I know it ain’t the money girl / there never was money / This usury’s so typical” goes the overstated ode to lust on “Knights.” Or the follow-up, “White Mystery,” which follows the John Mayer-approved method á la “Your Body is a Wonderland.”
“Touch me sweet / Forget the rest / Your hooks feel so right / Dug in my chest,” Snider croons on the ominous “Dr. L’Ling.” The lines here are more than telling: It’s easy to have “forgot the rest” when the hooks come in – minus the lyrics.

But these expected lyrical missteps aside, there’s not much that disappoints on Planet of Ice, and maybe that’s the problem. Before even popping in the disc, the expectations of thousands of MTB’s MySpace elites are practically guaranteed to be met: hefty grooves, decent melodies, great musicianship and that’s about it. Which is just fine, because if you’re looking for something in the vein of Dylan or Cohen, you’re either not into Game Gear or you’ve never played a game of Crisco Twister.

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