Amid the deaths of several rock notables last year was the loss of Surfer Blood guitarist Thomas Fekete, who died from a rare, aggressive stomach cancer at only 27 years old. As one might expect, struggling through that traumatic ordeal—and frontman John Paul Pitts’ mother being diagnosed with breast cancer as well—gives the Florida band’s fourth album, Snowdonia, a bit of a darker, melancholy bent. But the upheaval goes well beyond mood, as Pitts had to work to match a new lineup with the group’s established sound. There’s a comfort zone where this retooled roster can fully capitalize on its talents, but the record only finds it in flashes.
With longtime bassist Kevin Williams also gone, having moved to Texas, Pitts takes it upon himself to both carry the torch and create a new band from scratch—fully writing and mixing the album as he did on 2010 debut Astro Coast. And while his internal struggles and contemplative disposition color the music throughout (particularly on “Six Flags In F Or G,” his tribute to Fekete), Pitts resists fully exploring those emotions; he gives space to his grief but is resolved not to let it interfere too much with the cheerful breeze-pop framework he has cultivated through the years. This feels a little like a missed opportunity; after all, if there were one record for which Surfer Blood could get a free pass to drop some of its buoyant demeanor, it’s this one.
This isn’t to suggest that Pitts is totally closed to change. Thankfully, he recognizes the impressive abilities of his recruits, and guitarist Mike McCleary and bassist Lindsey Mills get prominent roles—including on vocals, which are layered into delicate harmonies and call-and-response whimsy on catchy cuts like closer “Carrier Pigeon.” Eschewing a formulaic approach, “Instant Doppelgängers,” “Matter Of Time,” and other upbeat arrangements feature multipart construction, abrupt time shifts, and intricately built melodies. Songs like these evidence Pitts as a rapidly maturing songwriter and his companions as more than capable of executing a wide range of styles, from gritty sonic tumult to unrestrained post-punk to Western soul. Getting these skills to jell means moving further away from the Surfer Blood that fans may be accustomed to, but Snowdonia hints at a rewarding payoff.