For a band that deals in fairly inoffensive indie-fare, Surfer Blood comes with so much baggage that it is amazing they’ve not ground to a halt. Back in 2012 frontman John Paul Pitts was arrested for domestic battery, a charge later dropped after a plea and pass order. This particular incident has seen the band apparently being boycotted by other acts, whilst their albums since Pitts’ arrest are frequently viewed with a sense of suspicion.
A discussion about Pitts’ guilt/innocence/plea might be interesting and an examination of the treatment afforded the rich and famous who seem to get away with battery due to their status is needed, but this is not the place. Put simply, do your research thoroughly and decide for yourselves whether you want to support Surfer Blood.
With the Pitts situation dealt with (to a degree) the band suffered yet another blow when guitarist Thomas Fekete was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. During the course of Fekete’s illness the band lost thousands of dollars of donations collected for him when their van was broken into whilst they were on tour and sadly in May 2016, he lost his battle.
Whilst Snowdonia is, in part, a tribute to Fekete, it’s also something of a celebration of the band’s drive to stay together. Of the original line up, John Paul Pitts and drummer Tyler Schwarz remain and they’ve recruited guitarist Michael McCleary and bassist Lindsey Mills to fill the gaps. Those expecting a dour affair should look elsewhere. In terms of tone you’d barely know that tragedy had beset the band, with Snowdonia’s early moments being positively upbeat.
It’s A Matter Of Time rattles along with an early ’90s indie charm, essentially a smart vocal hook and some vaguely dirty guitar lines that sound like The Lemonheads circa Shame About Ray. Frozen’s chiming guitar lines underpin Pitts’ boyish vocal delivery. It’s a song that is possible to read as an attempt to discuss his brush with the law with lines like “Tense negotiations, disparities…the treaty was agreed but the damage was done” and “in an instant everything was lost… your free trial is ending soon, either way it won’t stop the birds from singing,” hinting at how things panned out for him. If it is indeed about that period of his life, it sounds weirdly detached and strangely joyous.
Dino Jay misses the opportunity to take the form of a tribute to Dinosaur Jr and J Mascis, and instead passes by without really making an impression. Six Flags In F Or G paddles in the surf and borrows heavily from early B52s before heading into a section that discusses poor quality pastries over a wah-wah infused jangle that calls to mind Preston School Of Industry’s Whalebones.
The whole album is full of light and fairly catchy tunes, complete with some occasionally exquisite backing vocals, but almost all of them seem to be lacking a sense of emotional engagement. The glacial feel of the title track (and indeed, the album artwork) mean that even when Pitts is addressing the problems of the last few years, there’s a detachment at work. The closing track Carrier Pigeon also struggles to find the balance. Apparently written about Pitt’s mother and her struggle with cancer, it begins in a strangely jaunty manner for a song dealing with such a serious subject. It saves itself in the second half as it develops into something quite lovely and heartfelt, but closes with the band singing about the “old world” in the style of the Muppets cast. To say it’s confused is an understatement.
Perhaps the best moment comes in the form of Taking Care Of Eddy which just hits the ground running and combines a spiky punk blast to a Beach Boys sense of melody. It’s not a surprise to find that it’s the song that was written most quickly for the album, in that it’s the song that possesses the album’s most aggressive moments (largely in the searing guitars) and seems to find Pitts’ vocal approaching something earnest. It’s an island of emotion on an album that overall sounds curiously unaffected by the tumultuous events of the last few years.