So there I am, doing a bit of snorkelling on the coast of Southern California, the sun penetrating down through the surface of the sea, reflecting through the waves above, bathing the water in a warm golden light. It’s another world down here, a whole eco-system in perfect balance in the shallow waters by the beach, plants and animal life in harmony. Then I hear this curious sound, a sort of musical bubbling through the ocean. Slightly distorted guitar twangs making a happy watery soundscape perfectly complementing the underwater environment. Aqueous prog. Yes, I’ve invented a new sub-genre! Or perhaps more accurately, Todd Montgomery has, although he seems to refer to it as ‘watery instrumental beach music’. I’ll stick with aqueous prog.
Actually, the album cover of Surfacing neatly evokes their sound. The instrumentation and treatment really does sound kind of bubbly, and the music style says sunny beach and rollers, seagulls, jelly fish and seaweed. Kelp Dwellers are almost exclusively upbeat and positive in their outlook, this is music with a smile; toe-tapping tunes to bathe in. Rock pool ‘n’ roll (sorry) for optimists. All the music here is written by Todd Montgomery, clearly a very useful guitarist who seemingly has no desire to follow the norm, exploring instead the places below the surface of normal progressive music. He has previously been more often spotted playing acoustic guitar music, including Irish folk and bluegrass, and made three albums under the band name Fernwood. He is joined throughout this submarine oddity by one of his collaborators in Fernwood, Gayle Ellett who is best known for his own band Djam Karet. Completing this underwater trio is drummer Craig Kahn. Apparently, the three of them are good friends, and that reflects in the happy positive vibe throughout this fun release. I guess the sea-drenched theme is simply the inspiration derived from where they live. If you live somewhere as agreeable as the coast of Southern California, who’s not going to be inspired by that kind of environment?
Although much of the music is light and breezy, at first listen it comes across as simple and easy, there is a complexity in the construction which retains the interest and rewards multiple listens. Interesting interweaving guitar lines bubble through the surf, pushed on by the easy drumming of Kahn and Ellett’s nimble bass runs. Ellett isn’t confined to bass duties either, and contributes some great harmony guitar and lead work, as well as piano and EBow. There are also moments of darker moods, more mysterious passages evoking the unknown element of that undersea world, and the mythology that has grown up around such mysteries. Undine’s Righteous Victory, for example, inspired by the myth of Undine the water nymph, has a more exploratory style making a nice contrast, but before long we are pulled back by the current to warmer familiar waters.
Another more prog or psychedelic track even, Tricking King Swordfish is particularly enjoyable. It has a jammy feel to begin, Montgomery’s lap steel being especially effective before more muscular rocky chords crash in. Then we seem to dive below the surface into a strange underwater trench section before returning to the surface once more. It’s a mini watery epic in five minutes, and works superbly well. Elsewhere, we have moments of jazzy reflection, drums sounding like splashing waves, the music ebbing and flowing, but always returning to the sun, sand and surf. It’s just such an enjoyable journey, the real world forgotten for 40 minutes or so. Final piece Night Ashore is a calming piece to wind us down, the sun setting, the waves lapping on the sand, languid guitar breaks reflecting the gentle rhythm of the sea.
I could expand on how each song develops its marine themes and examine this record in all its subtle detail, but there’s really no need. It is an album which has its own sound, and it is simply here to be enjoyed. Better to sit back and let it wash over you, soak up the atmosphere and breath in the fresh air and ozone. I swear you can smell it. Just take a dip.
01. Jellyfish Song (4:05)
02. Winsome Rollers (5:02)
03. Undine’s Righteous Victory (4:46)
04. Westward, Mostly Sunny (4:35)
05. Tricking King Swordfish (5:01)
06. Otter Finley’s (5:00)
07. Watch Out For Water Dog (4:31)
08. Selkie Always Seeks (3:46)
09. Night Ashore (4:54)
Total Time – 41:39
Todd Montgomery – Electric Tenor Guitar, Electric Mandocello, Lap Steel, Electric Guitar, Synths, Piano, EBow
Gayle Ellett – Bass, Electric Guitar, Electric 12-string, Piano, EBow
Craig Kahn – Drums
Joee Corso – Electric Guitar (track 4)
Brian Chapman – Electric Guitar (track 5)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 3rd February 2021