Remember when Jimi Hendrix told us back in 1967 that we’d never hear surf music again? Turns out he was wrong.
Sure, the reverb-soaked sound of surf instrumentals fell out of favor in the Summer of Love. But time has taught us that the psychedelia that was supposed to render surf guitar irrelevant was actually a distant yet friendly relative of those crashing waves of sound.
If you’re not sure just how that formula works, you need to lend an ear to Heaters, a band from Grand Rapids who’ve been making a name for themselves with their heady fusion of psychedelic wanderlust and the big splashy sound of the surf.
The band’s second album, Baptistina, is an inspired exercise in contemporary psychedelic rock, headlined by the outstanding guitar work of Andrew Tamlyn. Tamyln’s playing is short on chops-intensive guitar heroics (which is ultimately a good thing), but as far as creating a distinctive atmosphere goes, the guy is a master. On songs like the wordless “Orbs,” the tribal “Garden Eaters,” and the suitably surreal “Dali,” he blends sharp, clean tones with thick washes of reverb, and adds just enough distorted patterns to create powerful soundscapes that herald the beginning and the end of the ’60s all at once.
The band latches onto a hookier sound with “Mango” and “Centennial,” but even at their most approachable, Heaters’ technique is lean and muscular, and the trio rocks dependably without pretension or needless flash.
While it’s Tamlyn who takes top honors on Baptistina, his accompanists do more than their share to make this album something special. Bassist Nolan Krebs (who also adds additional guitar) lends the music a responsive and suitably liquid bottom end that gives the tunes a dependable backbone when Tamlyn is inviting the spirit. And like Jimi’s old buddy Mitch Mitchell, drummer Joshua Korf doesn’t just hold the 4/4 here, but splashes out all over his kit to add to the expansive attack of this music (who knows how his cymbals can handle it all).
There are more than a few acts who are trading in similar sounds, such as Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, but where they have clearly drawn a lot of inspiration from garage rock, noise rock and first-wave punk rock, Heaters more accurately recall a rougher and wilder version of Television, a band that was clearly steeped in sounds of the past but reworked the elements into something with a sound and spirit of its own. The sound of Heaters is clearly built from the lessons of surf and psych, but their trippiness is sharper, smarter and better focused than that of, say, your average jam band attempting to figure out what the Grateful Dead were doing.
The production on Baptistina is simple, but suits the music beautifully. Much of Baptistina sounds like a raw, well-executed recording of the band playing live in a room with solid acoustics. This approach captures the interplay of the musicians in a flattering light, probably better than a more ambitious production might have achieved. And while the mix tends to bury the vocals, somehow that doesn’t seem like a serious flaw. Tamlyn and Krebs’ singing feels as much like another instrument as anything else, and if you can’t always scan the lyrics, this music is eloquent enough by itself.
With Baptistina, Heaters have made it clear they are a truly important band on Michigan’s independent music scene and this LP is both bracing and contemplative stuff. As Dick Dale once put it, let’s go trippin’.