The dystopian cyberpunk delight of Carmen Cerra’s cover art is the first thing you’ll love about Strong Like Bear’s June release, In the Future Only the Rich Will Live Forever. The world is more organic than the man; the walls have tendrils or veins, the land is made of bodies — but he stares out with an organic eye that’s distracted, and a bionic eye that seems better able to see.
The album tracks will leave you just as twisted, with a California lope that sounds inorganic, yet necessary for survival. The band told the Ames Tribune that they turned to a heavier, stoner rock-tinged sound initially as a joke, but as they processed the pandemonium of the past couple of years, it turned out to be the best way to get those heavier emotions out. Still, the instruments — the drums, especially — sound like they’re trying desperately to escape, like this isn’t the world they signed up for, like they’ll do what it takes to survive, but they don’t have to like it.
Track three, “Three Wizards,” teases this. Lyrically and musically, it’s exactly what you would expect a track of that title would be. But there’s an impatience, something unsettled and anxious. Not bored, but bound.
It becomes incredibly evident on track five, “The Queen of Halloween,” a deliciously on-point tune where the vocals are impeccable and the vibe is pristine. Right around 4:20 (yes, I know, but really), the drums kick up a fuss. They are just not having it, and it’s perfection. Who are these Ames-based Iowans who list themselves on Bandcamp as “pop rock” but have the temerity to get angry and serious and then call themselves out on it musically? Not who you expect them to be, that’s for sure.
This is at its core a fun album. Strong Like Bear is as silly as they are serious, layering wacky vocals on tracks like “Kiss the Sunshine” and “Blinkin’ On the Curve”; playing with sounds as though stoner rock is a new toybox they just opened that they’re determined to explore every corner of. They get the tone, and they’re not insincere, but they’re adventurers, not locals — and they’re constantly in conversation with each other as they navigate the territory.
The weirdly experimental closer “C.M.N.S.” raises a million questions about where they’ll turn their skills next, and its hairpin turns are a testament to the band’s years together and its members’ deep synchronicity with each other. It’s wonderful writing, angry and eerie, sounding for all the world like the protagonist on the cover come to life — stitched-together pieces from myriad sources somehow able to join into a viable whole that has learned to survive.
If you’re a fan of stoner rock (raises hand), you’ll find something familiar here. But ultimately, it won’t put you in the mood for more. It’ll make you want to listen to more Strong Like Bear, however different yet subtly the same. And that’s the best any band could hope for.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.