Aqua Velvets






Surfmania is that important sophomore album by the Surf Rock quartet (The) Aqua Velvets, released on Mesa Recordings in 1995. What started with verve and esprit on their 1993 debut The Aqua Velvets is continued seamlessly on this 12-track offering. This particular release does even cater specifically to the needs of the Exotica crowd, which is all the more surprising if one considers the year of its release, for in 1995, the neo-Exotica movement was still pretty much nonexistent, with only Combustible Edison's I, Swinger (1994) hinting at a Lounge-driven revival that was properly invoked in 1997.


Not only does Surfmania refer to the king of Exotica Martin Denny in one of its track titles, there are an additional three to four tracks with many characteristic traits of the genre, but more about them later. Miles Corbin is still the bandleader and guitarist on this instrumental album, with Michael Lindner reprising his role as bass guitarist and – very important – the keyboardist of the band. Hank Maninger is the second guitarist, while Donn Spindt is the drummer and, yes indeed, programmer and engineer of the Aqua Velvets. The Exotica flavor is mainly driven by two facts that elevate this Surf Rock combo from other related bands of the 90's: firstly, it is based on the generous use of Lindner's keyboards and synthesizers which not only evoke that certain bachelor pad niche of the 60's, but also displays scents of Space-Age and hence adds a welcome second meaning to the otherwise beach-focused works. Secondly, drummer Spindt is not only keen on his classic drum kit; in a remarkable addition, he programs various goblet drums and faux-bongos, therefore augmenting the usual theme of other Surf Rock bands with a more exotic, albeit artificial flavor. Naturally, vintage Exotica fans may shudder due to the use of electronic devices, but by all means, give this melodious and fun album a chance, as it also depicts that Polynesian and Mexican feeling with the help of good old-fashioned acoustic guitars. Without further ado, here is what Surfmania has in store.

Surfmania launches with its eponymous main title, a rather drum-heavy vintage Surf Rock concoction with the typical ambiguity of melancholic guitar riffs and coolness-evoking uplifting counterparts; regardless of the current chords, a surfer's life is always cleverly depicted by the band, be it the the colorful euphoria of the crunchy five-note bridge or the wave-like spiraling aora of another segue, Surfmania does not depict a carved out leitmotif, but places its various sections seemingly haphazardly, but tremendously successfully, making this a particularly catchy opener with a lot of energy; the good mood outshines the contemplative parts by a wide margin. Up next is Mexican Rooftop Afternoon, an unsurprisingly desperado guitar-fueled nostalgic downbeat piece, with Miles Corbin's doleful lead guitar meeting Donn Spindt's programmed sunset-soaked goblet drums, manifold interspersed castanets, Hank Maninger's acoustic guitar accents and Michael Lindner's dusky synths that already gleamed and glittered prominently on the Aqua Velvet's debut.


The change of pace might decelerate the wonderful opening section, but luckily enough, Martini Time resurrects the sunny mood of the opener and augments it big time with an almost Brazilian soul as found in the electric guitar main melody; yet again do Lindner's keyboards provide the key difference and make this a particularly catchy surf song. What the main melody lacks in memorability, the textures cleverly deliver. The convivial mood is eminently perceptible, a slight coolness factor cannot be denied.


Zamora broadens the scope yet again with its field recording of ocean waves, the sizzling maracas-laden percussion and the downbeat guitar-infused remembrance. The keyboards play in legato style and deliver a pastel-red solemnity and yearning in tandem with the acoustic guitar underpinnings. The main melody on the electric guitar shifts in timbre, evoking loneliness and independence. I would not call the setting overly romantic, but certain traces are definitely audible.


While Mastering The Art Of Falling Down starts with an 80's Synth Pop rhythm which is ennobled by the warm glow of ambiguously acidic-mellow guitar structures and especially gleaming downwards floating riffs, Martin Denny Esq. makes the hearts of Exotica fans jump via its track title alone, but also succeeds in its medium thanks to the samples of birds, ocean waves and a delicately polyphonous marimba lead aorta which meanders next to programmed elastic Brazillian shakers, bongos and a dreamy melody on two guitars whose mellifluous mystique conflates with the island vista as depicted in the background. The organ is curiously missing, but its inclusion is not needed, as the marimbas are in the spotlight anyway. Properly la(w)yered Surf Rock meets Exotica, years before The Tikiyaki Orchestra. I can relate and like what I hear. The same goes for the Latinized Surf Samba with its sizzling-hot backings, the quavering tremolo of the acideously screeching surf guitar and the Tequila-like rhythm; this is by no means a remix or homage, but close enough to be noticeable.


Moving into a surprisingly jazzy territory with A Raymond Chandler Evening and its sleezily spiraling bass melody, cool spy theme aura and the Reggae-like electric guitar accents as the only source of warm-hearted snugness, Cabaña Del Gringo bakes the surf-ennobled rhythms of Henry Mancini's Theme From Peter Gunn into an otherwise yet again unrelated good-natured acoustic guitar mélange with wonky licks in Hawaiian style and several sunbursts of euphony. It may well be one of the archetypical Surf Rock songs in vintage style thanks to its lofty rhythm and the omission of overly powerful and aggressive melodies. Hawaii Blue moves into even bolder Polynesian realms by decelerating the tempo to a hammock-friendly tempo that is kindled by a purposefully thin and mild guitar interplay with many doleful, melancholic notes in minor which are, however, always successfully linked to a paradisiac setting due to a prominent steel guitar in the background. No organ is featured, making this one of the most minimal lacunar arrangements which are structured in such a way that the decay of each tone maintains its specific aftertaste, even so when Donn Spindt revs up the impetus of the classic drum kit near the end.


The poetically titled Green Sunshine is the centerpiece with almost six and a half minutes runtime and an absolutely breathtaking golden-shimmering mamba-tinted artifact of crunchiness with a splendidly built-up riff whose polyphony and texture evokes a superb euphoria in tandem with the laid-back rhythm. Speaking of the rhythm: it is boosted and sped-up in the middle of the track, with wild percussion accompaniments and energetic guitar layers before the song ends in the same way it began, majestic and utterly amicable. A huge hit and one of my favorite Surf Rock takes of the 90's. The closing track Kashmir Sweater harks back to the 70's with its almost Disco-like carved out beat, the wraithlike organ rivers, the slowly intermixed goblet drums and the curiously but gorgeous sitar-like Oriental guitar traits. This song is less about the teamplay rather than a series of different guitar vignettes and improvisations being tied together. It is melodious and slightly cinematic, as it really feels like a proper closing track. The song fades out and leaves the listener with the strong feeling that the Aqua Velvets delivered another stunning album with an even stronger second phase.


Surfmania is another entirely great Surf Rock album, and while not every release by the Aqua Velvets can be deemed essential – no band with a discography of multiple entries can accomplish this –, it is a wonderfully melodious release with multilayered guitars and a strong euphony. It is once more Michael Lindner's keyboards which make an important difference in contrast to many other Surf Rock bands, as it is always used to great effect, if not on each and every track as was the case on their 1993 debut The Aqua Velvets. The only negative aspect to some people might be the programmed drums and synthetic exotic percussion, a wondrous characteristic trait in a subgenre that otherwise keeps things real and seemingly pristine or hand-made, with the exception of the essential amplifiers. I am nonetheless advocating these drums, for they expand the intrinsic soundscape of the album and are otherwise seldom used by 90's Surf Rock combos.


Surfmania features a generous amount of Exotica-related pieces, be it the obvious titular and audio-related reference in Martin Denny Esq. (the Esq. could also refer to Space-Age brass maestro Juan García Esquivel, but that is up for debate in a lawyer's office), the nostalgic daylight reverie which is aptly called Hawaii Blue or the gorgeously texturized centerpiece Green Sunshine, this album offers many Mexican, Polynesian and beach-driven dioramas. As usual, the variety is held up high. The album does not quite reach the spectacular wideness of their debut, but gets better with every song, with the most blissful and enthralling material residing on the latter half of the roster. Boldly recommended even to those Exotica listeners who are not overly keen on Surf Rock. Surfmania specifically targets you as well!


Exotica Review 176: Aqua Velvets – Surf Mania (1995). Originally published on Feb. 2, 2013 at