Skip to content

Live Review: Surfing USSR @ GBM, 4/12/09

December 10, 2009

Surfing USSR, Goodbye Blue Monday, Christchurch, 4/12/09

They surf the universe in their CCCP spacecraftSurfing USSR is quite a tricksy group. I first saw guitarist and band leader Greg Malcolm at a Borderline Ballroom gig at the old Media Club playing three guitars at once with implements ranging from a camera flash to chains to toy army men. At that gig he struck me as a grown-up version of the kid who messes around in the garage with effects pedals seeing what weird noises he can come up with. Grown-up because unlike that kid his music, while remaining raw and messy, had a sense of purpose, taste, and restraint that is often missing from such experimenters. It seemed like the sort of thing that John Cage might have done if he had grown up with guitars instead of pianos to “prepare”: forcing instruments to do things they aren’t meant to do and avoiding the conventional.

So seeing him playing guitar (and only a maximum of two at a time!) in what is ostensibly a surf rock band might seem a little bit weird. But things are not as they seem, as testified by the klezmer book the bass player laid out on his music stand for one of the tunes testified. Discovering a hidden link between surf rock’s uptempo, tremoloed minor mode melodies (just think “Wipeout”) and the freewheeling melodies of klezmer with their unusual folk music scales, the resulting music is recognizable and tuneful but also a bit off-the-wall.

Most of Surfing USSR’s tunes follow a similar pattern: a meandering melody with an Eastern European feel is picked out by Malcolm in a slightly uncomfortable-sounding staccato and slowly unfurls over a smooth bassline, backed by tasteful percussion that varies from up-tempo polka on the drumkit to various scrapers, shakers and other trinkets on the slower numbers. Along with this comes Malcolm’s foot-operated guitar, which sits on the floor with some sort of metal strip through the strings, providing a range of atmospheric effects. The intricate and unpredictable guitar melodies, generally eschewing riffs and short-scale repetition, are fun and easy to listen to while still having a sense of mystery and complexity.

No review of Greg Malcolm could be complete without a mention of his mad antics. He crooned out a couple of Hank Williams covers and that were heavily drenched with ironic mockery but had an underlying heartfelt quality. The suggestion box, passed around the crowd to be stuffed with comments obscene and drunken, was credited by Malcolm as the reason why the band was so great. As the bass and drums held down a groove on one tune Malcolm claimed that he could make music with anything, including a mostly full beer bottle supplied by an audience member that was less full when it was returned. Sadly there was no sign of the vibrator that he pulled out of someone’s handbag at his last show. After making some strange noises using a small camera on the pickups, Malcolm asked an audience member to take a picture of the band for posterity and proceeded to play cheesy Page/Hendrix/Townshend guitar hero licks, in a mocking-yet-loving Frank Zappa mood, while posing for full rock effect.

A truly eclectic mix of silliness and sincere musical expression, this Surfing USSR gig was most importantly just a really fun time.

Out of date band website link!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: