Album Review: Bear’s Den – Islands

By on Monday, 20th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Bear's Den Islands coverAlt-folk trio Bear’s Den have just released their much-anticipated debut album ‘Islands’, after achieving critical success with two previous EPs. Signed to acclaimed UK/US record label Communion, the band took part in the label’s Austin to Boston Tour in March 2012 on the strength of their first EP, ‘Agape’, before releasing ‘Without/Within’ in October 2013.

Now comprised of frontman Andrew Davie, drummer Kevin Jones, and guitar and banjo player Joey Haynes, Bear’s Den have been on TGTF’s radar for several years now, dating back to July 2011. But Davie cites the following year, 2012, as a major turning point for the band, starting with the recruitment of Haynes. “I got goose bumps at the first rehearsal”, he recalls. “We’ve got wildly disparate influences, but the three of us together have got real chemistry.” Then the aforementioned cross-country tour of America, beginning at SXSW 2013, saw them join the likes of fellow Communion-associated acts Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Staves.   “That was the point we really bonded as a band”, acknowledges Davie.

I first encountered Bear’s Den myself when I reviewed ‘Sahara’ from the ‘Without/Within’ EP, and I was lucky enough to see their repeat appearance at SXSW 2014 earlier this year. A mere 6 months later, they have emerged with a full LP combining a handful of previously released tracks with newly composed songs, including recent singles ‘Elysium’ and ‘Above The Clouds of Pompeii’.

The album title ‘Islands’ shares its inspiration with the moniker of the band itself, as Davie reveals in the accompanying press release. He says that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ allows “a dual perspective of seeing the world through both a kid’s and an adult’s eyes. A lot of our songs address the world in the same way. Bear’s Den is our name for the island the kid escapes to”. The island metaphor goes back to early track ‘Stubborn Beast’, included late in the tracklisting here, which Davie says “was the first song our manager heard and connected with. The isolated nature of it embodies pretty much everything we’re trying to express”.

The album’s general theme of exploring personal relationships is more straightforward in some songs than others, encompassing the idea of platonic love in opening track ‘Agape’ and the idea of an idyllic afterlife in ‘Elysium’. The child-adult dichotomy is sharply illustrated in ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’, which considers the instability of a child’s relationship to his parents. The Biblical setting of ‘Isaac’ reverses that perspective, examining the relationship of parent to child in the lyric “Isaac, I could never learn / that a father’s love must be earned / while your mother need not learn / how to love you”. The opposition is fully elucidated in the music as well, with the gradually building instrumental background of ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’ contrasting the static, introspective setting of ‘Isaac.’

The overall feel of the music on the album is atmospheric and ethereal, often lulling the listener into a trance with its subtly layered beauty. The warm acoustic sounds of ‘Agape’ and closing ballad ‘Bad Blood’ are balanced in the more progressive rock feeling of ‘The Love That We Stole’ and ‘Think of England’, but nothing on the album ever threatens to cross into the frenetic folk energy of the inevitably-compared Mumford and Sons. Davie’s calm, even lead vocals and the steady harmonies in the backing vocals give ‘Islands’ a sense of stability and continuity, providing context for a few surprising moments, including the jarring lyric “I want to fuck away all my fear” in the dynamic climax of the album ‘When You Break’.

If ‘Islands’ is a somewhat predictable full length debut, it’s only because Bear’s Den have taken plenty of time to refine their sound and their songwriting before releasing it. Here, they’ve taken what clearly works best for them and displayed it to their best advantage, combining simple folk song structures with thought-provoking lyrics and effective instrumental arrangements to create a record that is at once cohesive and expansive, appealing to both intellect and emotion.

8.5/10

Bear’s Den‘s debut album ‘Islands’ is out today via Communion Records / Caroline International. They will tour the UK and Ireland in early 2015; all the details can be found right here.

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