Year of release: 2018
by Jericho Cerrona
Prog is often viewed, whether unfairly or not, as the uncool genre—relegated to bloated concept albums, fantastical lyrics, and the towering guitar solo. Of course, prog is a broad term; fusing everything from jazz, classical, punk, new wave, to electronic music. Sacramento, Ca band Gentleman Surfer could easily be tossed into the prog pool, and they’re probably sick of hearing about it. The traits are there; mostly instrumental compositions, labyrinthine rhythms, odd time signatures, analog keyboards, bizarro sound effects, etc. However, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jon Bafus, keyboardist Zack Bissell, guitarist Barry McDaniel and bassist Blake Armstrong have been ripping their own brand of demented madness for years now, and on their fourth album, Hard Pass, they just keep on slaying.
Prog or not, Hard Pass is bananas. The self-titled opening track starts with what sounds like a rattling accelerator before dovetailing into knotty bass lines and loopy sing-along vocals. The rest of the track feeds off blippy keyboard washes, squealing guitar lines, and blistering forward momentum. There’s frenzied drums, rolling synths, and wacky muddled vocals (“Pharmaglob”), 16-bit dungeon level sounding jams (“Newt Dots”), wild start-stop tempos and demonic voices (“Emulated Egon”), and proto-punk freakouts (“Woven Grover”), but Gentleman Surfer never sound like they are simply wanking. The songs here feel improvisational, but have clearly been put together painstakingly and with tremendous artistry.
If 2013’s Blaks was a masterwork of loopy dementia and 2015’s Gold Man and even deeper plunge into the avant fringes of prog (there’s that word again), then Hard Pass seems to be a synthesis of everything Gentleman Surfer have accomplished up until this point. There’s a joyous enthusiasm that translates to the listener in how these nimble musicians play off one another that might even eclipse the band’s previous work. Above all else, Hard Pass can be best appreciated loud, perhaps under the influence, and with a very open mind.