The first (electric) guitar hero? Dick Dale, no question.
The king of “surf” guitar, Dale’s technique was equal parts curling waves and Gene Krupa, combined with an utterly unique left-handed, reverse-string approach. His eastern European roots, and his quest for greater sonic force out of his guitar and his amps, also played a major role in his work, and his early 60s versions of Misirlou and Hava Nagila were reverb-drenched instrumental workouts of the highest order, sneaking through the back door of pop music and exerting a seminal influence on what would become the rock guitar pantheon. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page without Dick Dale’s shoulders to stand on. The template Dale created is hard to resist: amped, fast-picked, lightning runs utilizing eastern scales, riding atop thunderous drums. Rock and roll fierce. Done well and with a sense of mare incognitum, instrumental surf rock continues to be one of the most electrifying musics on the planet. While the 1990s lounge revival saw a parallel-track revival in surf music, with groups like Man or Astroman? revving up its retro appeal, in some ways as a genre surf rock has had a much deeper influence in the last two decades on the kind of forward-thinking instrumental guitar music produced by bands like Scenic and Pelican.
The Madeira (Ivan Pongracic and Patrick O’Connor, guitars, Dane Carter, drums, Todd Fortier, bass) conjured these thoughts when I first listened to the band’s latest release, Ancient Winds, a surf rave up that dishes, ostensibly, on the Mediterranean as surf rock epicenter. Using classic surf music as its primary touchstone, Ancient Winds still sounds utterly contemporary. The Madeira takes surf guitar tropes and adds edge, darkness, complexity: this is not a world that is as simple as it might seem. There’s no kitsch here, no hokum or retro, only a serious band that unpacks some serious chops and also works the riffs in a gleefully satisfying way, suggesting Moorish Spain as channeled through a Fender Twin Reverb. The opening track, Journey to the Center of the Surf, is aptly titled, conjuring its forebears with the staccato picking so central to surf rock, balancing dynamics that draw on speed AND more deliberate melodic lines, to draw a broad picture of what’s to come.
Like all the tracks on the album, it leaves you wanting more, which is the Ancient Wind’s appeal: a record where you can land on any track and find a great cut, where the reverb and amplification are so saturated they push the riffs close to the edge, folding them inward until they almost disappear into a beautiful Kashmir cloud; or where there’s a moment of reflection, like on Dawn in Cadiz; or where what seemingly begins as a Ventures spinoff turns into a dizzying variation of chords around a central theme far more complex than initially expected. The percussion and rhythm work complete the songs, filling in details and sympathizing with the moods set by the guitar’s main melodic lines.
I think the caliber of The Madeira’s work exists outside of the friendlier profile surf rock projected at its height of early popularity, of the boy-next-door image of clean cut kids on the beach enjoying sun and surf. Here is the rumble of Link Wray and the speed of Dick Dale, a raw danger that deserves greater exposure and acknowledgement in mainstream rock. Am I saying surf rock doesn’t get the serious respect it should in the larger rock world, that it unjustly languishes as a sidebar in the rock and roll text? Absolutely. While the gonzo humor and good times embedded in its outsize riffs and sonic force will always be part of surf rock’s appeal, the artistry and musicianship on display on Ancient Winds shows there are other shores the surf can land on.
Here be dragons, indeed.