Midwestern Glitz: Spirit of the Bear’s Soaring & Stunning Eponymous Third Album

Spirit of the Bear © 2021
Spirit of the Bear © 2021

Mitch's Take

10 Music Quality
9 Production
10 Memorability
9 Content Originality
7 Lyricism
9 Sonic Diversity
8 Arranging
An invigorating swathe of soaring indie rock driven by passion, sincerity, substance, and verve, Spirit of the Bear’s eponymous new album is a vivid tapestry of music that is as catchy and creative as it is colorful, expansive, and downright charming.
Stream: “Wasps” – Spirit of the Bear

We just wanted to write songs that exemplify our own struggles and dark thoughts, and show how we’ve dealt with those and come out as people that we’ve become happy with. Put simply, it’s an album about personal struggle and growth.

Years in the making, Spirit of the Bear’s self-titled third album is a sweeping overhaul of indulgent sound and visceral feeling perfect for starting a new year off strong.

Following an increasingly impressive stream of singles teased throughout 2020, the longtime Atwood Magazine artist-to-watch have made a splash in early 2021 with the tightest and most cohesive offering of their five-year career. An invigorating swathe of soaring indie rock driven by passion, sincerity, substance, and verve, the eponymous Spirit of the Bear is a vivid tapestry of music that is as catchy and creative as it is colorful, expansive, and downright charming.

Spirit of the Bear - Spirit of the Bear
Spirit of the Bear – Spirit of the Bear
Lonely honeybee, remember when
You answered to a queen? Now you’re all alone
With a silent plea in the winter heat
I hope you’ll get out while the earth’s still green
The sky is wrinkling up
But no one seems to hear a thing
And when we take a look out
Will it be the last one?
When that day unfolds like the tissue paper sky
What should be hello is all of our goodbye
The lungs are hardening up
The heart refuses to believe
And when the ground erupts
Then will we believe?
– “Wasps,” Spirit of the Bear

Independently released January 8, 2021, Spirit of the Bear is the long-awaited and highly-anticipated third album by Ohio indie rock band Spirit of the Bear. Comprised of James Harker (vocals, guitar), Danny Svenson, (keys, vocals), Ethan Schwendeman (keys), Jamie Vitullo (drums), and Mike Perorazio (bass), Spirit of the Bear formed in high school and have been tearing up Northeast Ohio’s indie scene for years. Their third record is their first post-college release, and proves their finest set of songs to date.

Earlier this summer, Atwood praised “Summer Snow” as a groovy modern disco jam ready to light our spirits on fire: “If this song is any indication, Spirit of the Bear have found a new peak of both sonic and stylistic finesse.” The band’s follow-up “Opaque” arrived as “a hypnotic and catchy psych-infused indulgence.” In labeling the band an “artist to watch” in October, we described their track “The Shape” as a “cinematic upheaval with a dark, pulsing backdrop” mixing humor with depth and intimacy with invigorating charm. Following November’s uplifting, bouncy Vampire Weekend-esque single “Wasps,” Spirit of the Bear presents the Midwestern quintet at the height of their artistry as they embrace a balance of classic and indie rock influences alongside a polished, seamless pop production. The ten-track album is robust – a multifaceted journey through emotional highs and evocative lows that remains compelling from start to finish.

Spirit of the Bear © Nick Fancher
Spirit of the Bear © Nick Fancher

For Spirit of the Bear, this album is more than just a musical triumph; it’s a milestone long in the making.

“Sometime in the spring of 2019, we realized we had enough demos floating around to start working on a new album,” vocalist and guitarist James Harker tells Atwood Magazine. “We wanted the whole album writing experience to be something new and exciting for us this time around, so we booked out a week at a cabin in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. We went in with some stray ideas for songs and came out with the whole album nearly written, at least instrumentally. The songs were kind of bare-bones, but they were certainly full songs. It was a really isolated, inspiring week that none of us will ever forget.”

“We had a super loose vision going into the cabin trip. We just knew we had some demos and wanted to make an album. By the time we left Kentucky we had the idea for the “growth through the seasons” concept that ended up being the record. So the first leg (first two songs) represent Spring and a sense of starting fresh and references to honeybees, etc. The second leg, Summer (tracks 3-5), are all about growing past where we were previously at in our lives. Leg 3 is Autumn (tracks 6-8) and we start to talk more about self doubt and our insecurities despite how far we’ve come. The last 2 songs represent Winter and completely question the future.”

You could say that Spirit of the Bear is an evergreen experience, and you’d be right: Its songs are good for the light and the dark, the cold and the warm.

Making this seasonal album a self-titled effort is an intentional nod to all that it represents for the band. “While we were writing the album, we were all together in the same room at all times,” Harker notes. “This was really the first time we’ve ever worked this way, and it ended up being our favorite collection of songs we’ve produced to date. Making it a self-titled record also felt appropriate to the themes of growth and self-discovery that are all over the album lyrically, and it just felt right to do the self-titled thing. We also are just really bad at naming things, so it made for a much easier time in that regard, too!”

He adds, “The fact that it’s self-titled says it all. This is the pinnacle of everything we’ve done as a band thus far. It’s the most proud we’ve ever been of our writing, playing, and production. It may not be mega experimental, but there’s always room for more of that in the future. This record is the perfect summation of everything we’ve done so far, and it feels like the perfect progression of our sound.”

The band’s name, Spirit of the Bear, has its own fun backstory.

“The band name origin story is kind of embarrassingly stupid, but funny. We’ve made up dumb fake answers for this question in interviews before, but the simple truth is that in high school, our friend John Craig (who was the original drummer of the project for a very short time) came over to band practice one day when we were trying to come up with a name and brought up that he had taken a “What’s Your Spirit Animal?” Facebook quiz earlier that day and got ‘bear’ as the result. So we all took the Facebook quiz and we all got ‘bear’, and that night we decided that we’d be the Spirit of the Bear. I don’t think the name necessarily informs everything we do musically, but I feel like it definitely invokes an organic, meditative feeling that we do come back to a lot when writing (which is reflected in the fact that we did a cabin retreat for the album). However, we also try not to take ourselves too seriously, and I feel like the story behind the band name definitely reflects that, too.”

Harker acknowledges that Spirit of the Bear is not only the band’s most commercial record, but also their most serious album yet.

“I think it’s our most commercial purely because the production quality is so much higher than anything we’ve made in the past, and we’ve also honed our ability to work within a pop song structure and still make something that we love. I think it’s our most serious in some regards, but not in others. It’s serious in the sense that it deals with how we move through the stages of life, and even touches upon some darker topics like climate change and even our perception of death and how we live knowing that we’ll die one day. I guess it doesn’t get much more serious than that, haha. In other regards, though, our last album was all about breakups (we all went through them within the span of like, 6 months), and this new album has a couple love songs, which we’ve never done before. So it’s all about our own growth, which is serious, but at the same time, can feel like a sigh of relief.”

Spirit of the Bear © 2021
Spirit of the Bear © 2021

It’s all about our own growth, which is serious, but at the same time, can feel like a sigh of relief.

This music is Spirit of the Bear at their core: The most sincere, authentic version of the band to date. Their lyrics are mature, their songs colorful and sparkling with instrumental riffs, harmonies, and sundry nuances that help make every moment feel special and painstakingly thought out.

“The main statement we wanted to make with this album is really for ourselves,” Harker shares. “We’re not trying to tell anyone else how to perceive certain aspects of their own lives, per se. We just wanted to write songs that exemplify our own struggles and dark thoughts, and show how we’ve dealt with those and come out as people that we’ve become happy with. Put simply, it’s an album about personal struggle and growth.”

Am I making sense?  Am I making sound?
Everybody talks to me like it’s easy getting off the ground
Will I fall in line? Will I fall in love
With the hidden part of me that never seems to feel enough
I like to lose it now and again to change the pace
Feels like we’re moving, but have we been in the same place?
I don’t know if I’ve done enough to seal my fate
Will we get back the feeling with all this mess we’ve made?
When I’m breaking down
At the feet of all
The towers that I build alone
Will I be waiting on a call
From a passing face
With the curtains drawn
I’ve seen before, I know it from
Underneath the ground
Take me out where it’s impossible
Who was I meant to tell?
Falling straight to hell
Hold it tight, we’re all indifferent
Our home is in the mud
We’ll never know how long

Harker cites the album’s hypnotic, psych-infused opening track “Opaque” – a “perfect late-summer jam” – as a personal favorite from the album’s teaser songs. “That one feels so unique to me, like it’s a song I only could’ve written in the summer of 2019 just because of everything I was listening to at the time. It also came together really well and has some of my favorite production I’ve ever done. It’s very blown out and distorted in a cool way. Also, it’s accompanied by our best music video, I think (‘The Shape‘ is a close second).”

In addition to its singles, Spirit of the Bear introduces six new, previously unreleased songs into the band’s catalog. There is much to love across these songs – from the staccato beats of “Getting Closer” and the earnest vocal take in “Remarkably Blind,” to the sultry soundscape permeating “Grow, Wither” and the dramatic outpouring on “IDKATAY.”

Harker highlights the latter song as another favorite off the album.

“I think everyone in the band agrees that “IDKATAY” is the weirdest song on the record, and I think it stands out the most. There’s a wild, distorted breakdown in the middle and a beautiful vocal feature by Aaliyah Lashaun, and it feels like the freshest thing we’ve done, maybe ever. Second would have to be Grow, Wither because of its woozy indie RnB feel or Getting Closer, which feels like Danny’s indie-pop gem.”

I don’t know a thing about you
I don’t know a thing about you
You’re a wall I’ll always see through
But I’m attached, I’ll always be you
I don’t know a thing about you
I set myself apart to stay true
Ripped you out then swore to heal you
I can’t survive a day without you
I don’t know a thing about you
Hold my breath until I turn blue
By the time I finally come to
Remember me, I’ll never be you

Spirit of the Bear don’t necessarily identify as a “lyrically forward band,” but “whenever we put out songs, people comment on the lyrics a ton,” Harker reflects. Their new songs are full of sentiment and meaning that comes out through a closer listen to the lyrics.

“We pretty much write everything instrumentally and produce each song fully without lyrics, and the words always come last and are built around the musical world we’ve already created. I feel like that process allows for stronger lyrics to come through, though, because I’m always trying to convey a specific mood that we’ve already laid out rather than trying to create a lyrical mood and write music around it. That being said, one lyric that comes to mind as a favorite is in Wasps. The line is “with a silent plea (in the winter heat),” and it’s supposed to be an acronym for the song’s title (“With A Silent Plea = W.A.S.P.) It feels like my cleverest lyric ever, but no one will probably ever notice it and I put way too much time into thinking of that. My other favorite lines are the references in The Shape to seeing my “god” as myself, with wrinkled leather shoes, and the final line on the album (“If all that I am is what I am now, I guess I’m doing fine”), which basically is meant to say that even if I never reach any of the goals I have for my life, I’d still be content having lived the life I already have.”

Spirit of the Bear © 2021
Spirit of the Bear © 2021

Harker takes pride in his Midwestern roots, and acknowledges with a warm smile the impact his native Ohio had on the songs.

“I do think it feels very Midwest,” he says of Spirit of the Bear. “It doesn’t feel cold like an East coast record or ultra sunshine-y like a West Coast record. It’s somewhere right in the middle. I don’t necessarily think I hear Ohio in the songs specifically. If anything, I hear Kentucky, because that’s where we wrote all the songs, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the “sound of Kentucky” in the songs. It’s more the sound of the five of us being isolated in the woods together and writing everything together. Everyone’s individual musical styles coalesce into one thing for the first time in our music, and I think that could’ve happened anywhere as long as we were all together. We do love Ohio, though. The people are nice and we experience all the seasons.”

In keeping with that notion of the nice, down-to-earth Midwesterner, Harker and his bandmates are more than happy to have their songs available to all. After such a long time in waiting, he says it feels good to finally have them out in the world.

“All I really want is for people to feel something when they hear a Spirit of the Bear song. Whether that be the urge to dance or some deeper emotional thing, I just love the idea that music I make could make anyone feel anything. It’s the coolest thing ever.”

Spirit of the Bear have outdone themselves on this expressive, uncompromising third album. Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Spirit of the Bear’s Spirit of the Bear with Atwood Magazine as the band go track-by-track through the music and lyrics of their eponymous release!

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:: stream/purchase Spirit of the Bear here ::
Stream: ‘Spirit of the Bear’ – Spirit of the Bear

:: Inside Spirit of the Bear ::

Spirit of the Bear - Spirit of the Bear

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When I came up with the demo for Opaque, I knew immediately it would be the album opener. The working demo title was literally just “Album Opener” and I had this little note written in my notebook that said “open the album with big harmonies.” I think we accomplished that for sure, and made one of our most fun songs ever on the way. It’s partly hip hop/sample influenced and inspired by Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR album, although it didn’t really come through that way in the end. – James


“Wasps” is a really good example of just how weird we all are. It was created as a result of too much rum thanks to Ethan! The subject matter of the song is rather dark and depressing, seeing as it’s all about climate change. On the other hand, the instrumental is quite bouncy and goofy, serving as a nice little reminder that we can’t always take ourselves too seriously. In a live setting, I think it’s going to be a blast for our audience and for ourselves. -Jamie

Getting Closer

Getting Closer: There’s this weird thing with growing up that you eventually truly realize that things do not change overnight, and that living a life is the about the long haul and enjoying the small things you can along the way. Getting closer is about this, and how those baby steps moving forward may feel like nothing now, but will always add up eventually. – Danny

Summer Snow

Summer Snow: I’m still honored that this song has shot as far out as it has. As the first single from the album, and the first song we wrote for this album, and first official Spotify playlisted song. I think we were all just ecstatic that people were really engaging with the music that we wanted to put forth. It felt like a welcoming embrace into the new album cycle. – Danny

Remarkably Blind

Remarkably Blind was the last song written for the album, and I wrote it as a simple acoustic demo in my bedroom. I think this was the only song not written or worked on at the cabin, but I really wanted to make a song that reflected on my feelings from the year prior to that trip, so it actually was one of the first to have lyrics. It’s a song about loving yourself, plain and simple, and I felt like that was the perfect sentiment to throw right in the middle of the album. -James

The Shape

The Shape went through a lot of iterations of demos before we finally had something that truly excited us. This sound really came together at the cabin in Kentucky. It was a slow process of building, refining, and figuring out what we wanted from i t, but it has become a unanimous favorite from the record. – Mike

Grow, Wither

Grow/Wither: This is our first straight-up love song! It’s about learning what love is supposed to feel like, not what you thought it was. It also talks about taking comfort in love knowing that even when everything ends, you will have had that experience. It is a track that’ll make you feel warm and fuzzy, with a ton of detailed production bits and synth-scapes to get lost in. The bridge is my favorite part, starting with a weird plucky synth and ending with a beautiful combination of strings, organ, and pads. – Ethan


“IDKATAY”, in my opinion, is our equivalent of an M. Night Shyamalan twist. The first half is eerily calm and has a theatrical vibe and then, what seems to be out of nowhere, comes this disgusting, gnarly and intense breakdown unlike anything we’ve ever come up with before. Then on top of that, a vocal feature from our good friend Aaliyah is another big surprise that takes the song home in what I think is the only proper way to end such a wild rollercoaster of a track. – Jamie

No Heart

I think No Heart will surprise a lot of people, especially in a live setting. It has a great mix of flowing chill sections and other sections that hit way harder than you ever expect them too. It’s a personal favorite of mine and has been since the very first demos. -Mike

Winter (Every Color)

Winter: Structurally, it was pretty easy to decide the album order. Though there was a bit of discussion surrounding the order of the middle tracks, we knew Opaque would start and Winter would end. This song hits me with a wave of emotions. It’s somber and hopeful at the same time, and it leaves me with this strange happiness of taking on an always uncertain future. The atmospheric synths and textures in this track gives me chills every time we play it. – Ethan

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:: stream/purchase Spirit of the Bear here ::

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Spirit of the Bear - Spirit of the Bear

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? © Aleah Mersch, edited by James Harker
artwork © Nick D'Apolito

Ohio’s Spirit of the Bear Unleash Their Fun, Feverish, & Hazy “Opaque”


Spirit of the Bear’s Euphoric “Summer Snow” Is a Groovy Disco Jam


:: Stream Spirit of the Bear ::

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