When news broke about the tragic death of Surfer Blood guitarist Thomas Fekete in May last year, the band were forced into a state of limbo. They were busy recording their fourth album Snowdonia, and even though Fekete had rarely been present in the studio, he was a prominent part of the band's DNA. The recently married musician had been battling with a rare form of cancer that he'd originally been diagnosed with as a teenager, and was forced out of action. With the band on hold, frontman John Paul Pitts had to draft in a replacement for their remaining tour shows and consider that they may become permanent fixtures.
Fekete's influence on Surfer Blood is a lot greater than people may imagine. He was a driving force in the early days, pushing the band away from their humble South Floridian beginnings and into the national consciousness. This ambition definitely rubbed off on Pitts, as they began to form a formidable songwriting partnership and forge the critically acclaimed tracks of 2010 debut, Astro Coast.
With this in mind, Snowdonia comes with a heavy heart. But the reimagined band have not chosen to create an album of pure sadness, reflecting the loss of one of its key components. Pitt has rearranged his band into something even bigger. The initial idea for the album came to Pitts in a dream, after reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. Snowdonia is a muse birthed in Pitt's subconscious and provides most of the lyrical inspiration for the album. It's clearly helped too, with the frontman's songwriting on top form, peaking on the 8-minute long title track that opens with glittering guitars and shifts in pace and covers all corners of the fretboard in an understated epic.
Even though Fekete is no longer around to dazzle on lead, his versatile guitar work lingers in the spirit of opening tracks "Matter of time" and "Frozen" wriggling around the rhythm section and bursting into unhinged rock n roll solos. "Six Flags in F and G" sounds like a particularly nostalgia-induced attempt at reconnecting to their sunny roots, swaying to an emotionally-charged climax of effect-laden guitars that roll like film-ending credits.
There is a playfulness amongst the majority of Snowdonia to keep the hardcore Blood-ites intrigued. "Instant Doppleganger" for example, is one of the most forward-thinking tracks of the band has written to date - an unlikely intertwining krautrock and The Beach Boys, with added whistle sections. "When the wind catches our flame, where will it be carried?" asks Pitts in his signature high-pitched vocal. The track as a whole feels like a reference to the band’s new-found direction and a breaking off from any suggestions that they're middle-of-the-road indie rock.
Elsewhere the album conjures up an almost anarchic spirit, as "Taking Care of Eddy" flings around screeching guitars and simple punk chords alongside the catchy tropical guitar licks that the band have become synonymous with. "Carrier Pigeon" escorts the album to an ear-soothing close with more ‘shalalala’s’ and ‘awooos’ than a doo wap band, reminding that Surfer Blood might just be the only modern guitar band who can pull that kind of shit off. It may not be emblazoned with his name, but Snowdonia is a fitting tribute to Fekete’s memory - not only in its brilliantly dynamic guitar sounds but also in its insistence to think big.
Release: 3rd February 2017, Joyful Noise Recordings