Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Album Review: Bear's Den - Islands

"Guard your hope with your life" 

I first discovered Bear's Den via their previous outfit Cherbourg way back in 2009. It was just prior to Mumford-mania, and in hearing the - now folk super houses - support band for a show at Kingston's iconic New Slang, I was instantly taken aback by their beautiful melodies and sincere approach to songwriting - something I'm pleased to say has changed little to date. Following Cherbourg's split, I kept an eye out for Davie's musical endeavours as I could tell that a formidable talent lay within the bearded West-London native - and I even picked him out as a one-to-watch for 2011.

Upon hearing 'Agape', the first song from his new outfit Bear's Den, (taken from the 2013 EP of the same name) I could tell that I was hearing was something special - beautiful melodies and sincere songwriting were present as they were years earlier, but this time there was added maturity and lyrical depth. The band's follow-up EP Without/Within showed  an increasing focus on musicianship and deviating to more abstract and complex song structures.

Although Islands is the band's first full length record, it feels like the culmination of years of musical journeys.

Opening with the song that started this whole journey off, 'Agape', the familiar opening banjo chords are like being welcomed to this new chapter by an old friend. It's chorus is a rousing sing-along, rich in harmonies and littered with lyrical gems of heartbreak and obsession. 'The Love That We Stole' is an incredibly well crafted Americana track, built around an off-beat guitar riff and thundering percussion. Following two former fan favourites in 'Isaac' and the newly named 'Above The Clouds of Pompeii', we hear a new track in 'Think Of England'. This lush, nostalgia laden homage to our fair isle builds beautifully over 4 minutes, leading to an eruption of brass as it fades to black, repeating the line "do you lie back, and think of England with fireworks flashing".

'Magdalene' is a re-working of one of Cherbourg's finest moments (previously called 'Never Love Again'); despite lacking some of the urgency and melodic hooks of it's previous incarnation it's pretty special to hear the former melody line from five years earlier creep through at the song's climax, as a reverberated and ghostly Davies repeats the line from his past: "I will never love again with all my heart, it just falls apart every time I try". 

For me this is where this record diverges. To this point it has featured a number of tracks already released on previous EP's or written in previous formations of the band; however, the final three tracks show glimpses of the band's future.

'Stubborn Beast' hints at darker subject matter built around Bon Iver-esque open guitar song structures. On 'Elyisium' Davie writes confessionally to his brother about the complexities of becoming a man ("brother, please never grow up"); though it is lyrically quite a downbeat affair, it's juxtapositioned by one of the most infectiously anthemic choruses on the album. Closer 'Bad Blood' is, simply put, a masterpiece, showing glimpses of further evolution in the band's songwriting. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to scare you at all, I'm just trying to drain all my bad blood"

Though in these hugely cynical times people will criticise them for being too safe, there is something so refreshing about the accessibility and genuine honesty of everything that Bear's Den do - completely devoid of pretension - and based on their ever-growing legions of fans, I'm clearly not alone.

Bear's Den - Islands: 7.5 / 10

"I don't want to know who I am without you"