Aqua Velvets
The Aqua Velvets






The Aqua Velvets is the debut album by the San Francisco-based Surf Rock band of the same name and very close to my heart. Released on Heyday Records in 1992 and celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012, the album has aged very well – that is to say not at all! The majority of the ten instrumental concoctions is even older, harking as far back as to 1988 when the quartet of bandleader and guitarist Miles Corbin, second guitarist Hank Maninger, bassist and keyboarder Michael Lindner and drummer Donn Spindt recorded the album in the Porsche garage where Lindner worked as a mechanic.


The four-year timespan does the album good, as the compositions are varied and yet closely tied together by the well-known but never tiresome overarching concept of a surfer’s free will and independent lifestyle when he is king of all kings at beaches all around the globe. Despite being released way before the rise of the neo-Exotica craze in the later 90’s, the album consists of many exotic riffs and percussion instruments, making this a vivid example of the genre, and what the album lacks in vocals, it adds in regard to the pool of instruments and timbres. Particularly noteworthy are Lindner’s keyboard infusions. Ranging from careful backings to powerful front hooks, they add plasticity and a non-clichéd cinematic aura to the material that works better on this career launcher than on the consecutive releases. Below is what the debut has to offer.


There is no time to waste for ornaments or slow build-ups: Bravado opens with an aqueous guitar stab by bandleader Miles Corbin, with Donn Spindt’s pumping drums being immediately unleashed. Both are accentuating the ensuing bitter-sweet Surf Rock melody that depicts the wild rides, various dangers and the ambiguous assertion that life next to the beach can be incredibly lonesome despite the many people who are strolling there only a few hundred yards away. Michael Lindner’s frantically oscillating sunset-colored organ sirens shimmer through the action-laden, spy theme-evoking riffs, and Hank Maninger rounds off the intensive soundscape with additional guitar chords and a mirage-like steel guitar windup chord. Say what you will, but this first offering is to this day highly dynamic, the band manages to sail round the syrupy cliffs of kitsch. A surprisingly serious action skit and a great start.


The following Spy In The House Of Love unsurprisingly boosts the agent thriller-governed atmosphere further, with the accentuating four-note riff of that famous agent franchise theme fully intact on Lindner’s keyboard which itself is sleazily backed by belly-massaging bass guitar droplets. The mood is much more nocturnal and lacunar, with many micro pauses through which the sustain of the Balearic guitars oozes through. Here we have the rare case that the complemental spy theme elements are much more melodious and constitutive than the actual main melodies which lack focus and seem to be largely comprised of improvisational material. This is no problem at all, as the backdrop is carved out all the better and the nighttime aura is maintained throughout the duration. A laid-back tune that is quite close to the Lounge genre.


While Swampbilly Hop increases the tempo and presents a sun-dried Rockabilly rhythm with acidic guitars, deep fried warped twangs and sizzling-hot organ creeks which are truly in the limelight, even outshining the guitarscape by a wide margin, Spanish Blue is a magnificently camouflaged Tango with gorgeously hollow Exotica bongos, Poinciana-influenced tone sequences and piercing desperado riffs that evoke another sunset scenery on the beach. The downbeat tempo as well as the purposeful reduction of the classic drum kit allow the enchanting and slightly enigmatic atmosphere to unfold; this is still Surf Rock, but very close to the mellow tropical climes of the golden 60’s. Stylistically, it might neglect the blue color as depicted in its title, but the next blue-tinted song changes this assertion: Blue Rhumba is a daylight reverie of particularly eclectic and sunshiny electric guitars, and it is up to the three-note acoustic guitar-evoking crunchy twangs to aurally simulate the glittering luminescence of the sunbeams on the gently rolling waves. There is no catchy main melody apparent, as Corbin’s guitar meanders spikily through the track, but the repetitive nature of the accompaniment provides the missing mnemonic marker and lets the listener enjoy the free spirit of the improvisations all the more.


The exquisite Night On Paamul is noteworthy for another percussion-related expansion in the form of gently shaken maracas, gelid cymbals and even the occasional croaking guiro. Acoustic guitars mesh with spectrally illuminated organ washes, sitar-like electric guitar riffs showcase a good amount of reverb and the three reoccurring bass guitar pulses underline the interplay of coldness and warmth skillfully.


The melodramatic Gringo surprises with a literally ecclesial-cherubic synth setting which works marvelously in tandem with the downwards spiraling majestic guitar licks in major which elevate the scope of the tune into larger, more cinematic realms. It is the perfect song for end credits, partly serious with a few scents of graveness, partly gleeful due to its über-strong chorus which depicts the ride of the eponymous gringo into the sunset. Surf Boogie, in contrast, augments the coolness factor by a wide margin, with warped electric guitar strings and upfront drums depicting the laissez-faire attitude of the surf nation and leaves the dry-as-dust Steppes of Gringo behind for good.


The cheekily titled Beauty And The Beach strolls in yet another direction and can be considered the most romantic tune, romantic in the good, non-clichéd sense, as golden-shimmering guitars play a carefree melody which transfigures the beauty of an isolated beach. As such, there are tiny particles of melancholia attached, but the magnanimous amount of tones in major lessen their virtue. Some Surf Rock fans might think of this as the most boring song, but whomever the song alienates due to its mellow approach, it will impress an equally large audience who is looking for the languorous style of this genre. The closing track Tango De Milo proves to be the second Tango of the album and consequentially admixes guitar-related Latin lamento tonalities to the ghostly serenity of the organ accentuations. The heavily trembling electric guitars add a certain amount of bile, but what is even more surprising is the thin accordion evocation as created by Michael Lindner on his keyboard. I am usually no fan of the heavier, sterner moods of Latin music, but the pumping drums and the focus on surf guitars make this an appropriate outro of a diverse album that hasn’t aged a bit.


The Aqua Velvets has esprit and verve, and the band rightfully titles their debut after their name, a trick that is well-established, yet not often justified. But this opus is worthy of being closely tied to their big name. Spending four years on a record is a rarity in the Surf Rock genre and especially so in the Exotica world where conductors and artists fired off several salvos of LP’s each year. The San Francisco-based band took their time, but changing living conditions over the years presumably delayed the finished work as well. Regardless of these facts, the 20th anniversary is a reason to celebrate one of the most diversified Surf Rock records. From the many spy themes over picturesque beach sceneries to adrenaline-increasing wave rides, the bandmates play very well together.


Since I am viewing this album from an Exotica-related angle, I am all the more glad about the occasional appearance of bongos, woodsticks and maracas. Michael Lindner’s synthesizer mélange is also used to great effect, and he wisely puts this instrument to the background in order to not alienate diehard Rock fans who don’t want their music to be overly penetrated by 80’s stadium Rock. But whenever he hits the black and white keys, he boosts the ambience or solemnity of the compositions. If you do not mind the rare cases where the band insists on one too many melodramatic Latinized riffs, you are in for a real gem that depicts as many daytime scenes as it is fond of nightly panoramas. 


Exotica Review 147: Aqua Velvets – The Aqua Velvets (1992). Originally published on Nov. 17, 2012 at