The Break, Church of the Open Sky (Bombora, 2010)

The Australian group Midnight Oil may be best known for their politically charged songs about Aboriginal land rights and the environment, but they never forgot that they owed their existence to Sydney's thriving surfing scene in the mid-seventies. Nearly all their albums contain at least one song that makes reference (and reverence) to the ocean or the beach, and on two occasions -- "Wedding Cake Island" off their 1980 EP Bird Noises, and "Gravelrash" off their 1996 CD Breathe -- they recorded surf-rock instrumentals. Most people's knowledge of the instrumental variant of surf rock (meaning guitar melodies without vocals, as opposed to the multi-part harmonies of The Beach Boys) doesn't extend beyond the Surfaris' "Wipe Out," but performers like the Surfaris and Dick Dale made a big dent in the American charts in the years leading up to the British Invasion. Guitarist/keyboardist Jim Moginie, drummer Rob Hirst, and guitarist Martin Rotsey shared a passion for surf rock even as the music of Midnight Oil went in very different directions. That band has been defunct for close to a decade now, as singer Peter Garrett left at the end of 2002 to pursue a career in politics (he currently serves as a member of Parliament and a minister in Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Cabinet). After several years of working on each other's side projects, Moginie, Hirst, and Rotsey decided it was time to go back to their roots. They recruited former Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, who moved to Australia with his wife in 2008, and named the new band The Break. Their debut CD, called Church of the Open Sky, came out last year.

The liner notes alone are sufficient to make the CD a treat for the members of Midnight Oil's devoted cult following. Hirst provides a detailed and fun description of the recording of the album, while Moginie expounds on the musicians and surfer haunts that inspired the album and gave the tracks their various titles. Musically, the tunes don't stray too far from the surf-rock instrumental theme.  The guitars are predictably heavy on the reverb -- it wouldn't be surf rock if they weren't -- and Moginie periodically throws in some groovy-sounding keyboard effects. (There's no theremin on the album, however.) The musicianship is rock solid throughout.  Ritchie may not have a decades-long working relationship with the rest of the band, but he fits in perfectly well.

The potential pitfall with an album like this is that each track hits you in more or less the same way, and the tunes need to be really catchy to be memorable.  Fortunately, about half the album is really catchy. The first two tunes, "Cylinders" and "Winkipop," really stand out for their energy. "The Surfing Priests" has a chanted chorus that sinks deep into your brain with multiple listens. The last track, "Cyclops," hints at the hard-edged rock that defined much of Midgnight Oil's early sound.

Church of the Open Sky may not be deep or overwhelming, but it is certainly fun. Big fans of Midnight Oil or the surf rock genre will like this, and I'm guessing that similarly devoted fans of Violent Femmes will want to check it out as well. I could certainly see The Break evolving into a full-time band, with their next album having lyrics and singing. But I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


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