The Beach Boys 1971 album, Surf’s Up, marked the end of the first wave of surf rock music. The album title itself turns the old surfer phrase on its head, suggesting that the sunshine-drenched surf music of the band’s past was in fact dead.
The notion was further enhanced by the album’s dour cover art. Although the band continued to consistently release albums through the 90’s, they never really returned to the surf guitar style that dominated the band’s musical production throughout their most notorious and chart-topping years.
The release of Surf’s Up was around the same time that popular surf rock acts like The Ventures, The Trashmen, and even the King of Surf Guitar himself, Dick Dale, began to move away from the their traditional surf rock sound toward other genres, while some of the bands died out altogether.
It wasn’t until punk rock caught retromania in the early 80’s and began experimenting with the sounds of pop music’s past that the next wave of surf rock swelled. The suddenly un-dead surf trend continued for nearly 10 years in the punk underground, before its third wave brought the grey-haired surf guitar legends from the 60’s back to the stages for their now aging fan base to enjoy.
The 90’s even saw various Frankenstein-ed versions of The Beach Boys returning to the stage, shouldering the weight of numerous lawsuits regarding ownership of the band’s name.
While the surf rock genre has never been a major player in contemporary music ingenuity, it has always been a musical styling demanding a high degree of skill and prehensile precision. As the focus tends to be on the guitar work, many surf rock bands opted out of including vocals altogether.
Nowadays, one can hear remnants of the genre’s musical history flooded like sunlight into the garage rock revival along the West Coast, and the dreary, 80’s-drenched output from the East Coast. It even serves its role in the pop culture canon embedded in the teeny-bopper films of the early 60’s, the Grindhouse and Spaghetti Western cinema of the 70’s, and the flood of B-movies in the 80’s and 90’s.
Enter Surf Zombies.
The Iowa-based four-piece has been kicking around car shows and venues alike throughout our fair state for nearly 10 years, with a fistful of albums to boot. Their take on the surf rock genre is tough to attach a specific era to. All the mastery of the genre’s first wave is present, while the rhythm section falls more in line with surf’s pop-punk hybrid stylings.
The genre’s assumed aesthetic is even in place with the band name, itself a reference to decades worth of of hot-rod horror B-movies.
The band’s most recent album, It’s a… Thing! Astonishing Tales of Whoa!, actually dropped last year, but has only recently been given a well-deserved vinyl treatment by the Austin-based Deep Eddy Records.
The album opens with “The Bertlemann Slide” which could almost pass for a Real Estate track if it weren’t for all the booming drum fills and tremolo freakouts. It is perhaps the album’s most complex track, moving between punk rock leaning verses with a surprising fluency considering all four players hit the board firing on all cylinders.
Tracks like “Candyass” and “Mako Shark” hide their good intentions in their bridge as the verses carry themselves with all of the shadiness of surf’s post-Misfits phase. “Martian Beach”, “The Creeper”, and “Green Sticky” live up to their eerie track titles, bending notes through darkened alleyways drawing forth don’t-look-behind-you-esque atmospheres.
Side B opens with “Locals Only” which presents itself as the album’s calmest track before the red lights illuminate the fuzz pedals and the delicate hi-hat work gives way to the thundering crash of cymbals. When it does hit, it hits all the harder for the slow build of the song’s meandering intro and threatening underbelly of bass.
My favorite track, “My Fingers Hurt”, spins in half way through Side B and dumps a heavy dose of Vitamin D down the ear canals. It may be the closest the album ever comes to the beach before tracks like “Deep Eddy” and the title track, “It’s a Thing”, pull you below the surface, where heavy waves of delay stir up the water as guitars pluck like air bubbles rising and disappearing as the riffs pull you in like drowned hands toward the depths.
Surf rock albums have nearly always served as more of a collection of stand-along singles than an overall narrative told by the combination of its tracks, and It’s a… Thing! doesn’t necessarily break from that tradition. It does, however, take a lot of turns between tracks, switching styles so smoothly that fans of surf’s late 50’s and early 60’s roots may find themselves jumping between decades of the genre’s history and mistaking a 2015 record for something that they heard more than 50 years ago.
The band will celebrate the Des Moines vinyl release of It’s a…Thing! Astonishing Tales of Whoa! at The Fremont on October 9. The album is also available in compact disc, digital, and vinyl formats now from the Surf Zombies Bandcamp page.
More information available here.
Oh, and just for fun here’s “Sewer Surfin” by Surf Zombies set to the Sewer Surfin’ bonus stage in the Super Nintendo game, Turtles in Time: