Impressions of The Madeira’s Ancient Winds

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.

The Madeira’s SONIC CATACLYSM out this week

The five releases of The Madeira, the best surf band in the world.  Photo taken at Progarchy Allthing.
The five releases of The Madeira, the best surf band in the world. Photo taken at Progarchy Allthing.

The best surf band in the world, The Madeira, is releasing their first live album, SONIC CATACLYSM, this week.  It’s, in part, a celebration of the band’s tenth anniversary.

The brainchild behind the band, Ivan Pongracic, an economist by day, is also a fellow progger.  Though Dick Dale informs the music than any other person, there’s certainly a lot of Alex Lifeson and Steve Hackett thrown in as well.

To celebrate their tenth anniversary, The Madeira will be playing a special show in Indianapolis on June 14.

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On July 22, the band will open for Dick Dale, also in Indy.

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To order any of the band’s cds, go here: http://themadeira.net/

The Madeira Live, 2013

Last night, my wife and I had a date.  Having as many kids as we do makes this rather difficult at times.  Granted, we did have some choice in having all of the kids we do, so I can’t really complain too much about our confinement to the Birzer home on the weekends.   sandstorm

Of course, it’s my wife’s fault we have so many kids, but that’s another story.

We only had to travel about 1.2 miles to the site of our date, the Dawn Theater–a restored movie theater from the last century now turned into a nice dinner club with a full bar, great lighting, and nice acoustics.  You must understand, we live in a town with a population of only 8,000 and a county that seems to have more Blue Laws than all of the Bible Belt states put together (as a good friend of mine notes, Hillsdale must be one of the view places in which any one can rent the most disturbing and raunchy video imaginable (or, let’s hope, unimaginable) after church on Sunday mornings, but you are forbidden from buying a bottle of vodka–INSANITY!).

So, a nice dinner club is a stunning thing in Hillsdale County, and Peg Williams does a brilliant job of running it.  Thank you, Peg.

But, to top it all off, we got to hear The Madeira play.  It was my first time to see them, though they’ve toured throughout North America and Europe previously.  I pray it will not be my last time.

The Madeira, led by my close friend, political ally, and colleague in the economics department at Hillsdale College, Ivan Pongracic, specializes in Surf Rock.  I hate to admit it, but I’m really not that familiar with the genre–coming out of the Middle East originally but exploding in California in the very early 1960s.

As the band explains it on their website:

The Madeira plays surf music born of screaming wind over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, deafening echoes of waves pounding the Gibraltar Rock, joyous late-night gypsy dances in the small towns of Andalucia, and exotic cacophony of the Marrakesh town square. It is the surf music of the millennia-old Mediterranean mysteries.

To my untrained ear, the music most resembled that of Chris Isaac and of Ennio Morricone from the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.

band2008From my rather ignorant understanding of Surf, it struck me as possessing a really traditional rock rhythm section (bass and drums in almost perfect syncopation) but with a very mischievous lead guitar and a devastatingly hyperactive rhythm guitar.   The drums, especially, had an interesting sound–and for those of you who have any understanding and knowledge of drumming and percussion, please forgive me–as there was an emphasis on the deepest bass drum and on the highest cymbals, with little attention on the middle range.

Overall, the lack of lyrics and the place of Surf in history of the pre-radical sixties, gave the music a real innocence.  But, it was the innocence of genius, not of decadence.

The whole show last night–just a little under one hour long–overflowed with the energy of a thousand stars.  Amazing.  The audience enjoyed it just as much as the band.  Everyone enjoyed it.

Granted, I’m biased, as I think the world of Ivan, but he served as the perfect leader of the band.  He played with finesse and confidence, and he had the audience completely in the palm of his hand.  He joked, often, of the commercial suicide he and the band committed by dedicating themselves to Surf.  Well, what may be bad for the pocket book is perfectly healthy for the soul.

The Madeira is Ivan Pongracic (lead guitar), Patrick O’Connor (rhythm guitar) , Todd Fortier (bass), and Dane Carter (drums).  Their studio CDs (Double Crown Records) are 1) Sandstorm (2005) and 2) Carpe Noctem (2007), and 3) Tribal Fires (2012).  To order The Madeira’s studio CDs (and I very much encourage you to), go here.