Buffalo noise-rock group Bear Flames features a trio of the city’s musical mainstays including drummer Jim Abramson, guitarist Scott Valkwitch, and bassist T. Andrew Trump (and at one time also briefly included other notable artists Jax Deluca and KG Price). While the group had been on a lengthy hiatus with the three core members working on an array of outside projects (i.e. Poverty Hymns, Totem Pole, Downsampling, Tenet/Octet) they have recently reunited to perform live and work on new recordings. Before moving into this next phase, however, the group has (re)released two EPs and some demos that were recorded between 2006-2007 in a single collection.
This group of songs demonstrates that Bear Flames’s music is both fresh–despite being recorded over five years ago–and pleasantly familiar. Fans of any number of post-1970s musical genres will instantly hear a number of recognizable and appealing sonic elements, but will also be exposed to a number of different and interesting musical ideas (specifically the ideas of unconventional song structures that are prevalent throughout the music heard here).
The debt that they owe to the New York bands that populated the No Wave movement of the late 1970s is apparent from the first note to the last, right down to the cover of DNA’s “Blonde Redhead.” Songs like “Radio (Friendly)” and “Sabbath” are built around simple, chiming chords rife with slightly unusual intervallic structure. The chord progressions tend towards the minimalist, exploring the same trance-like grooving that No Wave experimented with (think Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Theoretical Girls, etc., but slightly less abrasive and pretentiously ‘arty’). And of course, there is a heavy emphasis on ‘noise’, i.e. dissonant soundscapes that tend to evoke moods concurrent with the music around them; discomfort, paranoia, impending doom, and destruction all come to mind when listening to these barrages of amplified lightning.
The band possesses a powerful rhythm section that reminds me largely of Nomeansno; a style of playing by Trump that is both relatively simple and grounded yet sufficiently in the place as the ‘lead’ instrument (check out “Future of the House” for a good example). Abramson, meanwhile, is able to shift from absolute bare-boned to frenetically charged patterns at the drop of a hat and right back just as easily, as he does on “Bad Knee.” This leaves Valkwitch (who also handles FX duties) ample room to swing between the extremes of caustic atonality and feathery, chiming chords. The result is a band that is orchestrated in a very tempered way, where no one member overshadows another.
There are a number of standout tracks here, such as a “Social Security”– which starts out as a mock-up of what disco may have sounded like if acid was the drug of choice for the time instead of cocaine — with a wonderfully dissonant loop that seems to suggest running for your life while you dance. The song erupts in the middle, breaks apart, and regroups into a much more melodious but no less unnerving second half before once again falling apart.
Another great track is “Future of the House” where sections of hard-rock riffage alternate with more subdued sections of an almost dublike nature with the rhythmic entanglement of tremolo-bass and syncopated hi-hat. “IFSS” starts off with a tremendously flighty, off-kilter 3/4 strut before metamorphosing into a jumpy, even cheery 4/4 groove and finally combining the two in a beautiful moment of fusion before finally settling back into the original time.
This mixture of grooves is one of the defining features of the group, where they build up only to destroy and then rebuild often using one or more elements from the original construct. See “K/K” where the minimalist bass travels from two disparate sections, staying more or less the same while everything else around it shifts. This kind of trick shows up in a number of songs, and is thrilling each time.
To put it simply, there is a lot of really interesting, exciting music to be had here, especially the tracks recorded in 2007. Highly recommended for anyone into No Wave, post-punk, plain old punk, alternative, etc. Well worth your time.