Album Review by John Powell
Bearquarium’s self-titled, eight song LP can neither be categorized nor explored without articulating the band’s ability to cross-breed jazz, funk, gospel, blues, and rock. While it’s easiest to tell inquirers that Bearquarium is Afrobeat, this is only to evade a long explanation of its smart genre-bending, and can be true enough because the seven-piece band includes a horn section (Dave Purcell, Gordon Clark) and percussion (Daiki Hirano), as well as several songs growing from poly-rhythms. Most importantly, Bearquarium is party music, and the album is best put on rotation during a house party or afternoon barbeque, or better yet, hire the band to play live, because my greatest criticism of the album is that it in no way reflects the energy of their live shows.
However, the album is expansive and showcases the members’ talents. Vocalist Justin Panigutti has a drawl that doesn’t resemble the band’s Burlington, Vermont roots, but has a Southern flare to it. Understanding what he’s saying is often difficult on the mix, especially because his gruff tone rolls like a bass line; but you can tell he’s insightful, and his voice isn’t unpleasant. I hope their second album works at clearing his vocal track, however.
The opening track, “Slave Runner”, is a funky mover. When the bridge hits the horns thunder in and the keys jab like groovy needles. “Up and Up” has a classic Afrobeat jaunt with Tyler Mast enlightening the ears with a fast-paced keyboard lick, over which Colin Lenox solos on guitar. The sound is tight, the band focused. “Up and Up” is one of the album’s several instrumentals.
“In the Afternoon” features Lauren Dabkowski on vocals. She sings, “He asked me my number/ I told him it was twenty-two,” and the song is clearly a smart look at your classic blues or jazz lyricism. The song is jazzy, slow, and beautiful. “She’s a beautiful mess/ but she likes it in the afternoon,” and then comes the elevator musical interlude, which, as I’ve said, is perfect for a sunny afternoon party.
“The Punch Within” is another instrumental that have way through falls into a reggae groove breakdown, and then builds by way of horns, fed by guitar trilling, that eventually succumbs to an Afrobeat mega-jam.
“Satori” is the key track, strangely enough. If I had to compare the song to another group I’d have to say it sounded like prog-rock techno jammers Lotus, or at least one of their more mellow tunes. It builds slowly over six minutes and could be in a car commercial. The guitar line is awesome, the horns complementing.
Josh Winstein holds the album together, and holds the group together live in concert too. His bass playing is phenomenal and his groove impeccable. His bass sounds perfect in the mix and he creates the funky vibe that never falters over the course of the album.
If B.B. King and Antibalas had a child it would come out sounding a lot like Bearquarium, and that’s a good thing. The album is sold in a single sleeve, with no booklet and no fancy artwork, except the cover, (a girl looking a bear in an aquarium). The no frills casing is much like the no frills sound of the group. It’s purely music, groove, and makes you want to bob your head. You’ll like this album. I guarantee it.