On his first album under the new moniker Bear Worship, Karl Knuttel sounds nostalgic for the very recent past.
Sometimes, when a band lists their influences, they appear willingly diametric to how the record sounds, as if to emphasise their stylistic complexity. Not so with Bear Worship, which cites Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Air as influencers on an album which aptly enough, explores the tension between the digital and the human.
Animal Collective often used abstract or nonsensical lyrics (and grunts) to convey animalistic humanity alongside their electronics. Knuttel is interested in the same duality, but picks at it by using lyrics that instead try to rationalise that relationship: “I want to sort the art from the artifice” he sings on opener Art In The Artifice, his voice stark against the chiming guitars.
Bubbly electronics are gradually added until the song explodes, In The Flowers style, with a crescendo of drums and synthesizers. The rational human mind continues to rule the first part of the album: the most beautiful song here, which floats and shimmers along its arpeggios, is appropriately named Shimmering.
Speaking to Goldenplec last year, Knuttel mentioned his love of using live drums on the album, creating “this really cool interplay between the precision of electronics and the ‘human-ness’ of drums and bass.” Another contributor to this interplay is his voice.
Knuttel’s falsetto sounds simultaneously at home amongst the high-pitched synths, and distinct from them. When he strains at the upper registers of his range, as he does on the stately Our Friends, the imperfections stand in contrast to the exactitude of the glitches and beeps.
Along with a lightness of touch with melody, there’s a satisfying thematic arc to ‘Was’. Our Friends, which continues to grab at distinctly human emotions (“I don’t belong here at all”), gives way into the second half of the album, where the lyrics get more abstract. “We are just vibrations, tones and modulations” sings Knuttel on Frequency, over a beat like a life-support machine speaking in Morse code.
Soon after, the digital experimentation is upped a notch on Pagodas. Where previously the melodies and counter-melodies felt controlled, here the synthesizers zip up and down in pitch as if going haywire. Eventually the whole thing coalesces into one of the catchiest electronic hooks you’ll ever hear, somewhere between Todd Terje and a ‘90’s computer game.
Finally, on Illusions Of Modernity, something like a vocoder ripples at the spoken word intro, as if the computerised side of the duality is on the cusp of engulfing the human. Performed by collaborator The Late David Turpin in a refreshing addition, it describes an upcoming digital utopia and ushers in the final phase of the album, where instrumentation is stripped back a little and Knuttel sounds more weary, as if on a kind of digital come-down.
‘Was’ is not an altogether comfortable album. Vacillating between excitement and anxiety, Knuttel’s voice is a perfect foil for the wobbling electronics. This is bright and summery music, but rather more like an overexposed photo of a summer’s day than an actual summer’s day.
While perhaps neither sonically nor thematically ground-breaking, ‘Was’ is skilfully rendered, endlessly compelling and full of gorgeous moments.