45 RPM: Bear vs. Shark


Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands. And If Something Isn’t Quite Right, Your Doctor Will Know in a Hurry (2003)

New Cumberland, PA. Voodoo Skate Park, 2003. Afternoonish. Bear vs. Shark, on their Right Now, You’re in the Best of Hands supporting tour, playing in between some gnarly wooden halfpipes. Feedback. A chunky chord hammers under an over-mic’d rhythm section. Lead singer flopping around like a fish, screaming, sweating.

Where are you for this show? Probably in junior high. If one really wants to kick oneself for missing out on Bear vs. Shark, one ought watch the skate park footage. Six people standing still, arms folded, watching a punk firecracker firing off in sloppy perfection. It’s my personal guarantee is that none of them could’ve heard this record beforehand. “Ma Jolie” alone turns you immediately into the Memorex guy, crisscrossing around time signatures and temperatures, pummeling with one hand and patting with the other. It’s pure excitement, punctuated by frantic drum fills and Marc Paffi’s inability to settle singing vs screaming. And it’s only the opening song.

Atonal shrieks. Lead singer leaping from the bass drum, knocking into the bassist. Stud-marching to and fro. Misses most vocal cues. The band is on point, active but nowhere near the same degree. A patron walks in front of the camera. Who cares.

After building up with clean strumming and short bursts, “The Employee Is Not Afraid” erupts into “eyoo-yooo”s for a minute, as though sung by a pirate, as though a reminder of high school summers. In “Buses/No Buses,” the start/stop dynamics war against the simplicity of punk while increasing its intensity: “My hands are shaken / and my arms, my hands are shaken.” “Kylie,” a dip in mood, begins quiet and grows loud, spiteful (“come on Kylie, now you get what you deserve”), fading into “MPS,” even more mournful, just Marc and a guitar.

A sick land in the halfpipe. Employees stopping for a moment to watch. Singer, horizontal, kicking the air like a baby being changed. A staticky snare-roll, a shot note. The guitarist jumps.

I don’t claim I understand this record. The lyrics are cerebral and poetic. The riffs don’t always “make sense,” stepping over each other, loud and quiet, explosive. But as gritty as the surface sound is, the songwriting is hugely melodic and uplifting, a major-key Equal Vision Records edition of At the Drive-In or The Clash. Between the quick shout-alongs “Michigan” and “Campfire” and oddly emotional “Broken Leg Dog” and “Bloodgiver,” it’s all somehow sewn together in a bright excitable package. Forty minutes of jumpy well-written punk. I’ve been playing this record nearly weekly for six years. It’s the only time I wish I could’ve been at a skate park.

A person watching seems asleep. Nobody knows the words. Some nod heads. Bear vs. Shark don’t seem to notice – if you were there or not, they were having a blast.

Terrorhawk (2005)

A close friend of mine back home used to keep this CD in his junky car. He’d skip to “The Great Dinosaurs With Fifties Section.” Are those breakneck drumstick clicks rattling over the jangly intro riff, or is that something loose in the dash? Enter Paffi’s throaty scream, then enter his gentle melodic voice, then his scream, then throbbing drums and quavering amp noises. Then really pull it on us with the ballady pianos of the next song, exploding into overdrive with horns for weeks. Are we speeding because Terrorhawk is an intense record, or because the car might stall if we go below 30?

This is to say nothing about opener “Catamaran,” a post-millennial version of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room,” take-no-prisoners-tom-heavy-drumming kicking your ass while the ferocious and catchy chorus takes your name. We’ve had to push-start the car out of an ice cream parlor at 8pm, but even that isn’t as punk as layering spazzy tapping over thick crunch, then switching it down a notch to let the bass and drums lead, then switch it again, then again, then again. It’s Bear vs. Shark’s short-lived trademark, distributing the energy through their songs, carrying the “fuck you punk rock we know you can do better than this” torch lit back in the 90s by MacKaye, Refused, Albini, ATDI, etc. Protip: if there’s a full moon, who needs working headlights?

It’s not a repeat of Right Now. A tweedy riff, ghostly keyboards, and rolling melody drive ballad “What a Horrible Night For a Curse.” No noise, no fury. Same for “Song About Old Roller Coasters,” but with bells, and save for some bursts of intensity to keep the six-minute “punk epic” afloat. And though the parking brake retched and the tires squealed, this album (CD) was still the most intense mechanical sound coming out of that car.

What I really mean is Terrorhawk is like a beat-up ol’ jalopy. Except it’s pretty eternal, in my book anyway. It’s tasteful, unique, boundary-pushing without claiming to invent the wheel – basically not my friend’s clunker car. Terrorhawk is more like a more meticulous, curious version of Right Now. Maybe Right Now is like a car. I don’t know. Fuck you for making me write this paragraph. Listen to Bear vs. Shark.