It can often be hard for bands that are typecast as emerging from the success of another to ever escape the shadow of that likeness. This is certainly something that Bear’s Den have encountered. In the wake of Mumford And Sons’ success and the subsequent critical backlash towards bands going down the nu-folk route, it was almost inevitable that the project of Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones would draw such comparisons.
The fact that Jones had previously founded the Communion label with Mumfords’ Ben Lovett – as well as the two bands being regular touring buddies – only gave credence to such comparisons. Even beyond those obvious connections, though, there were clear similarities in their respective sounds, with Bear’s Den’s 2014 debut Islands investing a heady, emotional weight to their atmospheric folk-pop tunes.
However, to reduce Bear’s Den to ‘just another Mumford rip-off’ would be doing them a disservice, especially in the eyes of their incredibly passionate fanbase. Islands had plenty of lush arrangements to get lost in, with single Above The Clouds Of Pompeii even receiving a nomination for the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically. Yet despite forging their own creative space, that Mumford likeness still loomed large.
Since the release of Islands two years ago, Bear’s Den have undergone several changes in both the personnel and sound departments. The amicable departure of founding member and guitarist Joey Haynes was undoubtedly a blow, but it paved the way for them to become a six-piece touring band and push their sound in a new direction. The results of which, are there for all to hear on second LP, Red Earth & Pouring Rain.
From the opening refrain of the title track, there is a noticeable evolution. Everything has been scaled up, with the driving guitar riff and rumbling drum beat worthy of filling bigger venues than those Bear’s Den have previously inhabited. “Don’t you remember love?” questions Davie, with the same emotional anguish that saw fans of Islands – including BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James – take the band to their heart.
Emeralds continues in a similar vein, with a hook Fleetwood Mac would be proud of, while single Auld Wives deals with the sort of weighty subject matter that dominated their debut as Davie sings about his grandfather, who developed Alzheimer’s in his old age. “Now I call your name/ I call your name/ but you can’t hear me now/ no, you don’t recognise my face,” he sings, over a tense, throbbing beat that only adds to the drama.
The acoustic niceties of Bear’s Den in their first incarnation are largely absent, replaced instead by the meaty riffs that bolster tracks like the infectious Dew On The Vine – which, while not exactly groundbreaking, does the job. Roses On A Breeze is another example of the band’s move towards more expansive anthems, with Davie’s longing lyrics about love enriched by a sparse arrangement, although it does drag at more than five minutes long.
It is not the only track that falls a bit flat, either. Love Can’t Stand Alone is also ambitious, relying more on Davie booming the song’s title repeatedly than any significant instrumentation, but it sounds too forced. The same is true of Gabriel, which only uses occasional electronic flourishes as Bear’s Den drift very noticeably into the territory of Mumford And Sons. Yet for the most part, Red Earth & Pouring Rain avoids such comparisons.
Yes, there are some who will consider their second installment in the same light as Mumford’s third album, Wilder Mind, which also flirted with a rockier sound. But Red Earth & Pouring Rain sees Davie and Jones evolve their sonic pallet much more naturally, with songs like Greenwoods Bethlehem and New Jerusalem demonstrating they have not entirely left their folk roots behind. Ultimately, it is a decent return from a band who continue to show promise.