My first exposure to Bear’s Den was a moving, intimate church performance a few years ago, before the release of their debut EP. The bearded trio played ‘Mother’ – a powerful song telling the tale of a son standing silently as his father beat his mother – immediately followed by the affecting ‘Pompeii’ which continued the story, as the mother dies and the son is left to grieve with his father. Towards the end of the emotional onslaught that was their short performance, the audience was filled with bleary eyes and even the singer himself was struggling to get the words out. This intimate, heartfelt impression is what I have come to associate with Bear’s Den and over two years and three EPs later, and they have finally released their first full-length album Islands: and they’ve grown.
The 10-track album is mainly made up of re-recordings of old songs, with three songs from their Agape EP and three more from officially unreleased Pompeii EP which is only sold at shows. These songs come repackaged with a new shiny, sometimes over-polished soundscape. Bear’s Den have been gradually expanding and exploring their alt-folk/pop sound with each successive release introducing a new addition to the sound. Islands is no different, and the Den seem to have a found a new toy to use: shoegaze-esque guitar pedals. Almost every song is accompanied by shimmering, high-pitched noises. This is not necessarily a negative thing, and this sonic development is encouraging in places. For instance, the screeching dissonance in the swelling climax of ‘When You Break’ combines with the electro-bass (another bold expansion for the beardy folk-lovers) to create one of the most immersive moments on the album. However, on tracks like the introspective aforementioned song (about the death of a boy’s mother), now renamed ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’ this “atmospheric” sheen only serves to distance the listener from the emotion at the heart of the song, and is one of a handful of moments on the album that one misses the more stripped back Bear’s Den.
That said, the trio could get away with adding heavy metal breakdowns, dubstep drops or even getting singer Andrew Davie to yodel over the top of every song, because the song-writing is so consistently strong, and could shine through no matter what sonic distractions they decide to throw into the mix. Davie manages to write songs that are (with the exception of ‘Think of England’ which leaves no strong impression) simultaneously uplifting and melancholic. The band is known by their fans for their song-writing reliability, and the new tracks will only reinforce this. Previously unheard song ‘Magdalene’ is a standout track, with a powerful chorus, soaring harmonies and swaggering rhythm the band seem their most confident and comfortable. Even though it is not dissimilar from other folk-pop songs that have been breaking into the mainstream recently – Bear’s Den do it so well that the familiarity doesn’t matter. Other highlights include lead single ‘Elysium’ (largely due to the euphoric horn melody) and the re-recording of ‘Bad Blood’ with a beautifully tender alternate ending invoking the intimacy of that early Bear’s Den church performance.
Islands sees the humble trio, aiming for more of an epic, far-reaching soundscape but whilst still maintaining the comfortable alt-folk core that fans have come to know and love. Generally, they achieve this, with only a few tracks – such as the once brilliant ‘Agape’ – being numbed by over-production. Whilst there could have been a few more new songs on the album – especially as Andrew Davie seems to have no trouble knocking out catchy folk-pop tunes left right and centre – it just means that fans have been left hungrier for more songs and curious to see what slight sonic development the London-trio will offer up next, whether it be influenced by Skrillex, Slipknot or the Yodellers of the Swiss foothills.