Surfer Blood rocked up in 2010 with the strident "Astro Coast", the unlikely love child of Sonic Youth and Vampire Weekend. 2013's "Pythons" rode in triumphantly astride Weezer's first two albums. "1000 Palms", in 2015, was mid-tempo, mellifluous and meek, unassuming in comparison to its arsey siblings.
But what happens when a band member dies? Things fall apart? The centre cannot hold? Surfer Blood could have easily folded by now. Having mourned the death of guitarist, Thomas Fekete, from cancer in 2016 and having seen bassist Kevin Williams leave, they were half a band down. Restaffed and rebooted, they return with guitarist, Mike McLeary, bassist Lindsey Mills and a sound closer to their original one.
Mixed and written by lead singer John-Paul Pitts, "Snowdonia" is suitably characterised by peaks and troughs. Pitts' vocals are often a tad low in the mix, rendering some lyrics hard to follow. There aren't stand-outs like "Floating Vibes" and "Anchorage" from "Astro Coast", or "I Was Wrong" on "Pythons". Yet, the title track is a soaring, surf-prog soundscape, with an enticingly-layered 75-second opening - guitars plus tambourine, bass next, then drums, growing into a complex sequence of three distinct movements. Consistently beguiling throughout is Mills' undulating bass, the pleasantly irregular heartbeat of "Frozen in the Armory" and the agonised love song "Dino Jay". Opener, "Matter of Time", has a happy, snappy, poppy, preppy pep - guitars surging like we're all cresting a wave.
First single, "Six Flags in F or G" is an elegy to Fekete and his love of Krautrock and post-punk. It grieves and aches, mostly stoically. "One of these days, we'll never, ever be apart" feels mawkish, but "What a bitter macaroon,/What a sour 'clair" makes you wonder what it would be like if Morrissey and Marr put their differences aside to front the next series of the Bake Off. The surprising gem is "Carrier Pigeon". Far from plonking a turkey at the end, they conclude poignantly, touching on Pitts' mother's own cancer battle and the vicissitudes of adulthood - "When I was seventeen, I had a beatific vision,/ I blew away on the wings of a carrier pigeon,/ Out of stagnant humanity, out of growing complacency." Capitalising on Mills' voice against Pitts' gives them a Black Francis/Kim Deal dynamic that they've not possessed before.
In a similar vein to the Weezer "Blue Album" vs "Pinkerton" debate, fans may differ as to whether they are at their best when fuzzed-up and rougher round the edges, or crystal-clear and politely polished. Either way, this album, out on Feb 2nd, is sometimes a ray of sunshine and sometimes an icy blast that sends an existential shiver up your trouserleg - like Snowdonia, basically.
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