It's one of the inherent truisms about metal that when a band needs a shot of attention, or want to prove they are more artistic than merely a group of guys bashing loud instruments, the concept album is the end result. There's something about a story set to music that piques interest in a way a regular collection of songs doesn't. The strength of a concept, hitting at just the right time, is enough to elevate a set of songs and turn them into something we will always remember, no matter what the actual merit of the music. Is “Operation: Mindcrime” a historic milestone because of the songs? No, and I would venture to say few people can even name a track on the album. It's success is entirely the product of having a compelling story that hit at a time when concept albums weren't popular.
In the years since, concept albums have become almost a mandatory part of a band's repertoire, as though a career wouldn't be complete without one in the catalog. It's frustrating, since many of these albums fall into the easy trap of putting out filler material under the guise of 'fitting the story', thereby relegating the album to the heap of the unwashed masses. Finding one that works as a piece of art, and also as a stand-alone piece of music, is complicated.
Silencer answer the bell with “The Great Bear”, a concept album that explores the scenario of the Soviet Union overtaking the United States in the space race. It's an interesting concept, but what ultimately matters is whether or not the album works if you know nothing about the story. Needing an understanding of the intimate details of the liner notes is a hefty strike against such an album.
With a running time just over half an hour, and containing three short interludes, there isn't much time or music for the album to develop. If a concept album is a novel, this is a short story, necessitating the story be blunt, move along, and not waste time. The story moves along in a limited number of songs, all of which lack the sort of energy that would keep the package from dragging along. Simply put, there isn't much about the songs on “The Great Bear” that would keep you coming back for more. The riffs are seldom memorable, the vocals bark out mostly blunted melodies, and little else about the arrangements adds to the pot.
The one thing working in the album's favor is the sound, which borrows the cold, dry guitar tone that falls on ears like the Iron Curtain. For an album dealing with the frosty relations between two superpowers, it's a fitting tone to take, one that has worked well for similar themed albums in the past.
“The Great Bear” falls short on two levels. On the one hand, it's simply not a compelling collection of songs. There are fleeting moments where they give the appearance of taking off, but they never do. The compositions are middle of the road in nearly every respect, which while consistent, doesn't make the album better than the sum of the parts. On another hand, the record doesn't work as a concept piece either, because without being told what the story is, there's little evidence in the actual music to make the connection. When listening to “The Great Bear”, it feels like a normal album, which it's not supposed to be.
Ultimately, the enjoyment of “The Great Bear” comes down to what impact the songs can make on their own, and there isn't enough to make the album a must-hear. There's nothing wrong with the music, but if that's the best that can be said, it's not something that can be recommended.