Vermont is a state that *double checks map* is not on any ocean. Yet the state has an inexplicably thriving surf-rock scene despite the total lack of any waves to catch. And why not? I mean, John Fogerty wasn’t born anywhere near the bayou either.
If “surf-rock from Vermont” wasn’t a niche enough genre, two bands in the past month have made it even more specific: “surf-rock concept albums from Vermont.” And extremely specific ones at that. One concerns a dolphin. The other a monster.
The first one, called Smirk of the Dolphin, comes from veteran trio The High Breaks. Here’s how the band’s Matt Hagan describes the album in an email:
This was inspired by a real-life story that’s all things twisted, beautiful and dark about this guy Malcolm Brenner and Dolly the Dolphin whom in the 70’s described as having an intimate relationship with this dolphin and when they separated, the dolphin became depressed and ultimately committed suicide by not coming up for air one day. This story for me embodies all that is bizarre and how powerful the full spectrum of universal emotions and attachment can be.
So, my spin on it was creating a character who finds their passion (surf guitar/rock n’ roll) through the muse of a dolphin who inspires him. The dolphin in turn becomes infatuated itself. They bond. The character achieves their ultimate goal of starting a band and playing out while the muse/dolphin is left at its home in the ocean, no longer able to see its friend. Thus, the downward spiral into deep darkness. Yet, it served as light for said character. All things life, right!?
To help get the narrative across, the typically instrumental trio adds lyrics to roughly half the songs. They also bring in some non-traditional surf-rock instruments, like pedal steel and castanets. It’s a nutty, wild ride that nods at the history of the surf-rock genre with Dick Dale and Link Wray references even as it gets extremely far-out.
The second Vermont surf-rock concept album also describes its subject matter in the title: The Monster of Jungle Island. This band, the Wet Ones. kept theirs totally instrumental, but aided the narrative in another way: with an extremely entertaining 14-minute “no-budget” short film depicting the plot. Here’s how that band’s Amy Wild described it to me:
The Monster of Jungle Island is a visual album paying tribute to the B-horror movies of the 1950s that we love and draw endless inspiration from. In the age of mostly digital releases, we were trying to think of a unique way to put our music out there. Taking a cue from Beyonce and others’ “visual albums,” we had a blast coming up with ideas for the movie, and surprised ourselves by actually making it happen. Never did we think our +35-year-old selves would be running around Burton Island with a paper mache monster head and machete, but here we are. The plot was devised in about 10 seconds, exploring the themes of otherness, fear, isolation, xenophobia, etc., but ultimately we just wanted to keep it as a fun and campy tribute to the genre.
The basic plot, as far as there is one, is that Jungle Jim thinks he is alone on an island until The Hunter arrives to warn him of The Monster, who has also been inhabiting the island. Chase scenes ensue, and finally Jim and The Hunter back The Monster into a corner where he narrowly escapes his demise by pulling a guitar out of the jungle flora. Then, Jim finds a pair of drum sticks, and The Hunter a bass guitar. The three realize that none of them are actually in danger and come together to play a song in the final scene.
Surf-rock is a genre sometimes thought of has having strict parameters, but The High Breaks and The Wet Ones both prove you can push it to all sorts of strange places – like the landlocked state of Vermont.