Center of the Surf
Calling The Madeira a Surf Band is like calling the Boston Pops a municipal orchestra, it’s true, but doesn’t really tell the whole story. One of the great things about the Boston Pops is that they could play familiar songs, and make them sound recognizable, yet include complexity that was there for the taking if you cared to give it second, deeper listen.
Likewise, The Madeira operates on more than one level. At first listen, it is Surf music, well performed and accessible, but there is more to it than that. Going past a casual listen you can hear a complex harmonic concept and some devices not commonly heard, such as Hungarian minor scales which add a refreshing element which set this band apart from many of their peers.
In this day of low cost home recording, it is possible to have nearly infinite takes and each member can contribute parts recorded in the comfort of their own home, but live recordings are another matter altogether. There’s nothing to hide behind in a live setting, which brings us to their latest offering. Together, let us Journey to the Center of the Surf, which coincidentally, is the title of the first track.
Journey to the Center of the Surf starts off with an energetic introduction gives way to a melody with depth and then refrains which return to the energy of the intro. The bridge breaks the tension and returns us to a variation on the melody with the high energy refrain shortly thereafter. One never quite knows what to expect next in Journey to the Center of the Surf.
Hail, Poseidon! starts off sounding a bit like an ‘80s Pop tune, think U2 or The Police, but then goes into a clear minor key melody with an ascending motif which builds tension until it cascades back to the starting point of the melody. Somewhere around the 60% mark the intro is repeated and while the timbre is quite different from the body of the song, it fits perfectly.
Ancient Winds is mellow, but still energetic. To my ear, the harmonic structure is what stands out the most. Descending chords resolve in interesting ways. Once again, this is a song full of surprises.
The Argonaut starts with classic high energy drums followed by a flurry of energy from the lead Guitar which then builds to the melody. The energy and feel are reminiscent of Dick Dale while the melody sounds like it could easily fit a SciFi theme. Behind all of this, the rhythm guitar drives on providing a very solid sonic backdrop.
Leviathan fits its name well. There is little consensus about what a Leviathan actually is, a sea monster, crocodile or some other kind of frightening beast from the deep, but this song contains more than enough drama to cover all of the above. It is the feel of classic Surf at its best. A key change a little past the halfway point boosts things slightly along the way, but the song hardly needs it.
Into the Deep is more introspective and provides a change of pace. One could easily imagine this song in the background of a quiet interlude in a James Bond movie. Of everything on the album, this strikes me as the most evocative. Could this represent the thoughtful period one would feel after surviving an encounter with a Leviathan? Whether intentional or not, the order of these two songs, Leviathan and Into the Deep, is perfect.
Dilmohammed sounds very much a part of the Middle East. The mind is drawn to visions of ancient marketplaces, tents and camels. Starting somewhat softly the body of the song comes on strong. The Surf drums work beautifully against the melodic motifs. The sound is exceptionally simple and straightforward, contributing to the impression of the ancient bazaar. It is appropriate that this song was first recorded on an EP entitled Ruins, it sounds like it should accompany a movie scene set in a place that was very busy, and filled with intrigue, long, long ago.
Undercurrents is a song with a strong melodic element, supported by a solid clean sound which harkens to early Surf and even before. This melodic element does not, however, restrict the harmonic motion in any way. There’s a lot going on in this relatively short song.
Ricochet is originally from the Sandstorm CD. While the speed is right up there, the energy level is a bit more relaxed. A Shadows device of repeated ending to a phrase is employed at the end of the first verse and as rapidly as the notes come along, the timbre of the lead guitar is bright but nowhere near harsh. I hear a lot of Shadows in this track.
From this point on, the quartet becomes a sextet with the additions of John Blair on guitar and Johnpaul Balak on bass. The power increases noticeably with these additions and a powerful band becomes a sonic juggernaut, without resorting to heavy distortion. Never does the sound use definition.
Tribal Fury has a power that is reminiscent of Link Wray. While nothing on this album could be described as languid, this track is like a string of powerful locomotives moving a heavy line of cars up a mountain pass. “This ain’t your pappy’s surf music” is spoken at the end and indeed, it is so.
Sandstorm starts off twangy, a la Duane Eddy but then the Surf feel comes to the fore. After the bridge the song mixes it up, returning to the Duane feel at times but never straying too far from the less laconic feel of Surf as opposed to the twangy vibe of Instrumental Rock’s first guitar hero.
The Intruder (Listed as Intruder #1 & Intruder on the Ruins EP) starts off almost softly (in a loud sort of way due to the live setting) and proceeds along the lines of a modified Andalusian Cadence which brings to mind Flamenco Music. About a minute and a half in the pace becomes considerably less laid back and the energy of the song goes off-scale, complete with power chords, as Intruder #1 gives way to Intruder. Having two basses and two rhythm guitars on this track redefines the term “Wall of Sound”. About halfway through there is a lull which then slowly builds back to a much higher level of energy. The bass plays arpeggiated figures which contribute to the melodic interest of the tune as it reaches a climatic, and sudden end.
One thing that strikes me is the quality of the writing. Patrick O’Connor wrote five of the songs, Ivan Pongracic wrote or co-wrote five songs with the two remaining songs apparently having come from outside of the band. None of the songs are predictable, most of them are harmonically rich, even complex. None of the songs are particularly laid back, with the exception of Into the Deep, but the overall level of energy and excitement varies greatly, even in different passages within the same song.
I will add only this, from my perspective as a player. Playing Surf without sounding shrill is far from an assured outcome. It takes skill and experience to find the balance. Well played Surf music is a technique-intensive exercise for all musicians. In many ways, the songs on this album are probably as challenging as many classical pieces. The right-hand tremolos involved amaze me. What I hear on this live recording stands up well to the standards of speed set by Dick Dale himself. The sound of the band avoids the all-too-common mistake some Surf bands make of too much reverb. (All banter aside, it is possible to have too much reverb on a Surf recording and it can really detract when overused.)
The live performance is solid, the songs well-written and imaginative. This may be one for the record books.—
The artist formerly known as: Synchro
When Surf Guitar is outlawed only outlaws will play Surf Guitar.