The High Breaks, Droppin' Off With ... the High Breaks
(Self-released, CD, digital download)
Burlington surf band the High Breaks emerged some years ago as a side project of local indie-pop darlings Lendway. At their late 2000s height, Lendway were among the promising bands on the BTV scene, owing to their knack for candied guitar hooks, sugary melodies and even more saccharine vocal harmonies. As such, the High Breaks were a curious alter ego. For one, their tunes are all instrumental, eliminating a core Lendway element and strength. For another, they're just flat-out weird — in a good way.
Where Lendway traded in bright pop jangle, the High Breaks prefer to explore darker musical corners. Indefatigable guitarist Matt Hagen has claimed inspiration for the band from the films of auteur David Lynch, among other mysterious touchstones. And that imprint is clear in the band's transcendental approach to surf rock, as evidenced by the High Breaks' debut record, Droppin' Off With ... the High Breaks.
Not unlike the original kings of Burlington surf, Barbacoa, the High Breaks are as informed by the slick, watery runs of Dick Dale as they are by the unearthly soundscapes of spaghetti-western soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. The opening track, "Shifty" borrows a spooky, slithering mod groove from the Marketts, punctuated with a "hey" at the end of each stanza.
"Hot Dog" plays on Dale's early beach-blanket-bingo style, with boogie-woogie guitars and a classic progression that brings to mind little GTOs and little surfer girls.
Guitarists Hagen and Michael Clifford aren't quite in the same league as Barbacoa's Bill Mullins — few are. But they have the staccato firepower that surf guitar demands. Moreover, their melodic sensibilities are complementary, leaving room for interesting twists and curls amid the rippling runs. The best example is "Surf Showdown," in which the two trade licks that are not just technically impressive but musically compelling.
Todd Gevry might be the most underrated drummer in Burlington. And his work here is typically understated but critical. He frames Hagen and Clifford's ethereal strokes with masterful precision and tact, providing key accents on his cymbals and rims. When called for, he unleashes waves of percussive punch — see "Ankle Breaker," for one. Gevry's work on the chilling "Ice Diver" is exceptional, especially in tandem with bassist Kevin Lynam's lugubrious lines.
Perhaps the best example of the High Breaks' fusion of surf tradition and modern noir themes comes on "Voodoo Wave." The song tweaks the melody of Dale's classic "Shake-N-Stomp," as if refracting through a kaleidoscope. The result is both familiar and disorienting and, like the whole of Droppin' Off, it's a deeply satisfying ride.