Paul handed me the Pyronauts’ latest CD - “Play for Surf.” Graced with the surf art of Shawn Griggs, its packaging set it leagues apart from the Pyronauts’ earlier CDs. The moon reflects off of the waves and froth giving them almost a neon glow or fluorescence.
The artwork put a hook in me. As I get older and less toned, “hook” probably should be replaced “harpoon.” Great artwork on a new CD by one of the best surf bands in Northern California -- 4 excellent musicians -- makes it irresistable.
After checking out the artwork and notes for a full 5 minutes, I gave the CD a play. Whiz! Whap! Another harpoon!
It is not the high energy harpoon that grips you and does not let go, saying throughout the CD, “Let’s dance.” Instead, the CD features guitar centric music with a purity of tone and sophistication that exemplify some of the best of third wave surf music. The CD also demonstrates the immense musical talents of the Pyronauts. Portraying the maturity that comes with playing as a band for several years (10 years together for Paul, Bob, and Brett), they took risks in picking the songs. The risks paid off!
“Sprinkler of Doom” starts the CD off with a tasty morsel. It reminds me of the earlier Pyronauts’ CDs. The Brett Cole’s bass works in conjunction with Paul’s lead. Bob Bitchin’ and Timmy Stephenson create a bed of rhythm. I could envision a Rain Bird going back and forth in a couple of places.
The Pyronauts give a new spin to a couple of songs from their earlier CDs by going acoustic on “Sifaka” and “Pie.” They put a surf pulse into the Allman Brothers “Jessica” and Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick.” They take a chance with “Rumble in Kentucky” -- Timmy on mandolin and a bit of back woods feel. "Rumble under a Blue Moon" would have been just as appropo for a title.
“Amazon Warrior” puts the bass out front a couple of times. The Brett Cole performs a surf sounding lead. Paul provides a flamenco sense -- that Spanish sound which underlies the music of some first wave bands like the Sentinels. Time changes. Strong bass lines. Clear and clean picking. Even though it is more masculine in its sound, this is a song worthy of its name (assuming that Amazon pertains to the mythical tribe).
My personal favorites are “The Clearing” and “Jawbreaker.”
“The Clearing” is down tempo. It is again clear and clean. Tremolo bar bends give it a bit of psychedelic folksy feeling which is reminiscent of The Mermen. But, unlike The Mermen, the song is structured -- not free-formed. It is well-arranged. The guitars compliment each other. Paul and Bob demonstrate that their years of playing together continue to pay big dividends. The song features a layering of finger-picked and arpeggiated chords by both guitars.
“Jawbreaker” introduces something new to the Pyronauts’ mix: A saxophone. At one time, saxophones were staples of rock ‘n roll. Surf bands -- even Dick Dale’s Del Tones -- had saxophones. The Crossfires, Flo and Eddie’s pre-Turtles band, used two saxophones along with the heavy tremolo picking of Al Nichols.
At times, “Jawbreaker” is pure surf -- tremolo picking and honking sax. At other times, it has that nightclub dirty jazzy-blues feeling -- a bit of sexy and sassy sophistication. Maybe that is because Joe Berry, who plays the sax lines, is well-respected as a jazz performer. The combination of surf and jazz blues takes me back to a day when instrumental rock combined elements of blues and jazz and every band cut its teeth on Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme.”
“Play for Surf” concludes with “Gymnopedie No. 1.” Again, the Pyronauts slow the pace down. Their rendering of the French composition from the late 1880s borders on psychedelic. The term often used in describing Erik Satie’s piece is “atmospheric.” The feeling is of gentleness or tranquility. In the 1880s, “Gymnopeide No. 1” and its sister compositions were viewed as eccentric departures from the classical tradition.
Along this line, "Gymnopedie No. 1" is quite appropriate as its caps a CD which is not formulaic high-energy instrumental surf. Instead, it is mature, sophisticated instrumental music by a band that is mature beyond the years of its members.
At times, I thought about turning on the lava lamps in the Doghouse. Other times, a camp fire came to mind. Hey, aren’t the Pyronauts gathered around a camp fire on the cover of the CD?
“Play for Surf” will be released at the Sunday Surf Party at the Capitol Bowl. And the Lava Pups will be there. Years ago, Mick and Keith. Earlier this year, the Pups. Now, the Pyronauts. April 22 will be one fun and historic afternoon!
By the way, “Play for Surf” is must-have for your surf music collection.