by Allan MacInnis
People with issues around change have had some challenges being Bison fans in recent years.
First came the replacement, in 2011, of original drummer Brad Mackinnon – a relatively busy drummer, given to complex fills and flourishes that suggested Keith Moon fandom, with former Pride Tiger vocalist Matt Wood. Wood’s a superb drummer in his own right, but one who is all about keeping a powerful, propulsive beat, with little room for excess or expressive asides (unless you count his facial expressions, which are expressive indeed).
That was a pretty easy shift to get used to, but it was only the start. Over the next few years, we’ve also had to watch Bison get dropped by Metal Blade -— a bummer for fans, who liked rooting for their hometown team’s success and who glowed with vicarious pride that they got the attention in the first place. This was doubly disappointing in that it came on the heels of Bison’s masterwork, Lovelessness, one of the most emotionally rich metal albums this music fan has encountered.
After being dropped, with the band focused on starting families, change ran rampant. Bison dropped “Wendigo,” the must-play song from their Metal Blade debut, from their setlists, presumably to protect it from losing its bite. The band also altered its logo, to assert an identity distinct from that of the Metal Blade years, opting for something plain and blocky that almost seemed a fuck-you to logo-fetishization.
They also promptly dropped the “BC” from “Bison BC,” which had originally been tagged on in small print as a bit of label legal maneuvering to protect against claims made by other possible Bisons to their name, which the band always insisted was really just “Bison.” The “BC” had been made doubly ridiculous when Swedish band Ghost — based in Sweden, ferchrissakes, not British Columbia but Sweden — decided they would partake of same strategy and lamely, with no regard for originality, became Ghost B.C. — in effect stealing the very tag-on to Bison’s name that the band had settled on to prevent people accusing them of stealing the other part of their name.
Bison then released an EP with an A-side, “10,000 Needles,” that was vastly more dirgelike and monolithic than any of their previous material, like the Melvins or Swans at their most thudding. It suggested the band was going to take a different tack to songwriting altogether, that they were insisting on a new identity for themselves, even if it risked alienating some fans (which it may well have done; I gather that the EP was greeted with a resounding critical silence from people previously all too happy to praise Bison’s recordings in print, like maybe they couldn’t bear printing that they didn’t like it very much?). Even weirder, the B-side — “Calm, Friendly and Euthymic” — began with a lengthy vocal sample, something unheard of on their previous releases.
Finally, and most painfully in terms of changes, in 2015 or so Bison lost original bassist Masa Anzai, who, with a background in jazz, had been perfectly suited to Mackinnon’s style of drumming, but was perhaps a little less so to Wood’s. That change impacted the image of the band, as well as their music: While there’s a beauty to all members of Bison, with their shaggy manes and abundant tattoos, it’s a primal, rough-hewn beauty, not for everyone. But Masa had an undeniable physical grace to him, leaping lithely about the stage between all that flailing hair like some sort of dancer. It was an interesting counterpoint and made the band even more fun to watch live.
That change wasn’t made easier in that replacement bassist Shane Clark. A former guitarist for now defunct 3 Inches of Blood he took the band into the further reaches of the “shaggy tattooed dude” spectrum. He’s got his own charisma, but it’s vastly different from Anzai’s, not just as a physical presence but also a musical one. He stands to Anzai roughly as Wood did to Mackinnon — a thing of earth and stone and wood and metal, more thunder than lightning in his playing. Which, when you think of it, isn’t a bad thing for a rhythm section to have (more rhythm!). In theory at least Wood and Clark would work together very well indeed; but who knew how the new dynamic was going to play out in studio?
As a Bison fan, I was almost apprehensive to put this new record on. Maybe I’m alone in my relief, here — I know no other Bison fans to talk to about these matters, to see if they have had the same experience — but I’m positively grateful to be able to declare: holy boy, is this a good album. It’s a heavier Bison, maybe a less restless Bison than we were used to, one with a new tolerance for simpler riffing that extends unbroken for longer periods (as with “Drunkard,” which opens with a chugging figure that suggests vintage TAD, but which persists more or less unchanged and free of vocals for over a minute and a half, aside for some subtly building cymbal work from Wood).
But there’s plenty that’s still recognizable from the Bison of yore, from Dan And’s feral background roars to Farwell’s deft, melodic, and joyous lead guitar licks. Farwell even keeps true to his habit of teaching his audience new words (add “kenopsia” to the list, after “euthymic” and “Clozapine”). And there are, besides the tougher, more bass-driven songs, also artful and quiet passages (“Tantrum” in particular evokes Lovelessness’ epic “Blood Music”).
And some of the changes to the way Bison has approached songwriting come as totally unexpected gifts — like the punchy, terse “Anti-War,” which I think may be the shortest full-on Bison song ever, clocking in at a raging three minutes and one second, practically punk rock in its brevity. You’d almost think from the concision of it that they were trying for a radio hit, except no mainstream radio station would ever touch a song as savage and primal as this.
Anyhow, take heart, Bison fans: You Are Not the Ocean, You Are the Patient, turns out to be a very satisfying Bison album. For the full effect, I recommend playing the album over the air on a sound system that does justice to Clark’s bass (playing it through earbuds on my phone didn’t do it justice by far). Better still, if you really want to appreciate Bison, see them live: because having weathered changes, they have returned to the stage with a vengeance this summer.
As for “Wendigo,” take heart: I’m told (by Dan And himself) that with the tenth anniversary of Quiet Earth forthcoming, it’s probably going to re-appear on their setlists later this year….