Following a three year ‘hibernation’ since the critically acclaimed ‘Veckatimest‘, Grizzly Bear roar back to life with their highly anticipated new album ‘Shields‘.
Listeners who stumbled upon Grizzly Bear thanks to the radio-friendly single ‘Two Weeks’ back in 2009 however should not expect a carbon copy in 2012. As long-term enthusiasts will attest, this is a band that likes to challenge its audience.
‘Shields’ reasserts Grizzly Bear’s position as masters of complex melodic soundscapes, navigating deeper into unchartered territory in search of bold new textures and tones. True, there are enough trademark musical signposts here to not make you feel completely overwhelmed, but ‘Shields’ is a beast that can only be tamed by patience.
On the surface it may appear opaque, impenetrable even, but the key to unlocking the secrets of the album is to recognise it as one body of music; the evidence for which can be found in how the songs evolve and their relationship to each other.
‘Yellow House‘ and ‘Veckatimest’ both contained compound song suites expertly weaved together to create a whole; ‘Shields’ is a series of elaborate songs suites that together create an altogether more complex but complete structure. Accepting it as an album in its entirety – as an emotive symphonic trip – it throws down a studded gauntlet in sheer defiance, daring you to solve its mystery.
Adopting a much heavier sound, it is also a much more aggressive album. Where ‘Veckatimest’ opened to the gentle rolling, slowly climactic, acoustic blues of ‘Southern Point’, here ‘Sleeping Ute’ tears and shreds its path with a thunderous boom – an unpredictable, unstable, reverberating electric storm. Its unexpected shift to a calm and reflective nylon-strung coda serves as a flawless segue for the gentle opening lull of heartbeat drums and sweeping synth in ‘Speak In Rounds’. But even this meditative moment is fleeting as the acoustic guitar driven rhythm propels the song through dynamic peaks and troughs pushing for closure by way of a surprising but brief entry of a jazz wind ensemble.
The short transitory ‘Adelma’, meanwhile, guides the album to the inspired but self-conscious ‘Yet Again’, with its pop-perfect harmonies shimmering brightly and leading to a bombastic 60s psychedelic breakdown. The pounding percussion and chaotic squealing guitars evoke memories of Radiohead‘s pre-’Kid A‘ experimentation.
By contrast ‘The Hunt’ is restrained, remorseful, and a respite from the former aggression. The brooding, stripped down ambiance is deceptive in the beauty of its arrangement. Rudimentary piano propped up by atmospheric toms, trebly acoustic guitar and sombre bass clarinet. Rather than forcing the album to stall, it acts an integral part to its development. It’s a dynamic counterpoint that steers you into the infectious roll of ‘A Simple Answer’. While not the strongest song on the album, the song does have an instant melody and comparatively standard structure – for Grizzly Bear at least.
From here the swooping strings of ‘What’s Wrong’ generate a dreamy, almost ominous atmosphere; a stoned paranoia. Recalling the chamber orchestration of The High Llamas, it’s all part of the journey – ‘gun-shy’ continuing this ethereal setting albeit with a lighter touch. The use of synths, pitch bend guitars and heavily compressed drums instantly bring to mind Metronomy - which is an unexpected yet refreshing surprise.
Of course the real revelations lie in the final tracks. ‘Half Gate’ starts innocently enough with solo cello and strummed electric guitar but then follows a master class in the art of dynamic shifts. The striking melody set within a series of intense builds and quick releases where the orchestration fluctuates between the tranquil and the menacing. But the most ambitious moment is saved for last.
‘Sun In Your Eyes’ is without doubt Grizzly Bear’s most significant work to date. It’s a meticulous, resolute statement. Initially there is the feeling of déjà vu; ‘Veckatimest’ closed in a similar fashion with stately piano, a majestic melody and even a choir of angelic voices drawing the album to completion. But here the subdued piano is misleading; the verse breaks to the weight of an orchestral swell and engulfs it before dropping away and then re-emerging with the force of a tsunami. The elusive melody and arrangement, while closely related to Van Dyke Parks’ ‘Song Cycle‘ orchestration, also hints at Debussy’s ‘La Mer’. The result is astonishing and demonstrates Grizzly Bear’s aspirations as well as their ability to push musical boundaries.
It is inevitable that this album will receive mixed reviews on the grounds that it isn’t Veckatimest II. But it is so much more than that. And although ‘Shields’ boasts several key songs for ‘scavengers’ of standalone MP3s to devour, it is an album that reveals itself slowly and rewards the listener greatly if you allow it to speak of its own accord. Each song is an integral part of this exhilarating, intoxicating adventure and deserves to be heard in context. It is synergy at play.
‘Shields’ is not Grizzly Bear on the defence. ‘Shields’ is Grizzly Bear donning their armour ready to attack. Aggressive. Predatory. Carnivorous. If only more bands were as valiant as this. “Yet again, we’re the only ones. No surprise, this is often how it’s done.”
Perhaps not the only ones. But certainly one of the very few.