Graded on a Curve:
Bali High OST

Today we remember Surf Guitar legend Dick Dale who passed away on March 16 with a look back from our archives at the genre he pioneered.Ed.

The Western Hemisphere has just entered prime beach season, which of course means swimming, soaking up rays in the sand, sipping upon cold beverages to help counteract the swelter, and for beings of adventuresome and athletic nature, the riding of major waves. But if one is faced with landlocked circumstances a perfectly acceptable alternative is cranking up Anthology Recordings’ reissue of the OST to Stephen Spaulding’s surf film Bali High. Gills-drenched in appropriate vibes, it also spotlights the ingenuity of musician-composer Michael Sena. 

Whilst enduring my teenage years a steady rise in clumsiness unfortunately became tangible, and thusly skateboarding, skiing, and surfing essentially got lumped together as activities best avoided in the safeguarding of physical health. However, I did enjoy skate and surf rock (I know not of a corresponding mountain genre of the slopes), though gradually clear was that a lot of surf music didn’t actually impact the listening diets of those having shaped up the subculture.

A whole bunch of real estate spreads out between the coasts of the United States, and a significant portion of surf rock served that market in a manner kinda similar to Exotica; residing closer to the root of true surf was Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Chantays, The Surfaris, and more so scads of obscure regional acts, a high number of them hailing from Southern California, but surf music’s reality was undeniably somewhat messy. For instance, many quickly adapted to hot rod themes in hopes of expanding audiences instantaneously snatched away by the tsunami of the British Invasion.

So the story goes, anyway. In 1966 The Endless Summer appeared, giving voice to a legitimate way of life amid the death throes of faddishness. Scored by The Sandals (or Sandells, who curiously went on to contribute the soundtrack to Dick Barrymore’s ’67 skiing doc The Last of the Ski Bums), Bruce Brown’s documentary is the obvious starting point of any tour through surf culture’s audio-visual component.

Anthology Recordings has been doing a bang-up job reissuing the OSTs to a handful of subsequent surf films. First was Morning of the Earth, Albert Falzon’s highly regarded ’72 pictorial study of the “short board evolution” and corresponding “soul-surfing” lifestyle that coincided with post-hippie New Age. Produced by and featuring music from G. Wayne Thomas with contributions by Brian Cadd, Tamam Shud, John J. Francis, and others, The Australian flick’s soundtrack shares basically zilch with early-‘60s surf rock, instead offering threads of psych, country-rock, flute trilling, and even symphonic boogie.

It’s an OST as esteemed as the celluloid that inspired it; alongside last year’s vinyl reissue by Anthology was Warner Music Australia’s CD complete with bonus disc “reimagining” of contemporary cover versions. Perhaps not as revered but no less worthwhile is ‘73’s Crystal Voyager; shot mostly in California by director David Elfick, it’s structured as a biography of surfer, photographer and filmmaker George Greenough.

Having previously made a flick under the rather kickass title of The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, Greenough’s short film “Echoes,” consisting of footage shot from inside the curl of waves and synched to the Pink Floyd cut of the same name, is Crystal Voyager’s closing sequence. The actual OST, also given a fresh vinyl edition by Anthology in 2014, is credited to G. Wayne Thomas & the Crystal Voyager Band; its laid-back psych and folk makes a fine companion to Morning of the Earth.

Mexican Summer’s release of those artifacts kicked off the Anthology Surf Archive. The third entry in the series belongs to Bali High, a set deepening the Archive’s endeavor by effectively entering a new phase. Where the volumes discussed above (bundled for sale with Bali High at Anthology’s website) are unblemished pro-level studio productions, the latest derives from painstaking DIY resourcefulness.

Contrasting with Crystal Voyager, which reportedly raked in six figures worth of moolah in a double bill with René Laloux’s animated sci-fi cult film Fantastic Planet during an engagement in London’s West End, Bali High worked a more modest circuit, Spaulding touring and running the projector in small theaters and American Legion Halls throughout the US.

In this context paying for music rights was a low priority, and Spaulding employed material ranging from Santana to Spyro Gyra, Bob Marley to Kraftwerk, The Rolling Stones to The Fixx, and Stanley Clark to Dave Mason. But when time came to distribute the movie on the emerging technology of VHS, unlicensed tunes naturally grew to be a problem, and that’s where Michael Sena enters the picture.

Operator of an eight-track studio in the town of Kapaa on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Sena was a successful musician having collaborated with Graham Nash and Buffy St. Marie. Based upon good rep, Spaulding simply visited MANTRASOUND studio, introduced himself and inquired if Sena would care to attempt an original score inspired by the original musical cues.

Using a VHS tape as guide without the ability to synchronize the images to his reel-to-reel deck, Sena undertook the process manually and impressively completed the project in a mere three months. The results do depict the relative modesty of his studio setup, but there’s never any question of competence, and in fact Bali High’s four sides deliver frequent evidence of Sena’s imagination, instrumental adroitness, and unwavering focus on the task in front of him.

I will mention that a fair amount of the running-time is devoted to late Fusion tendencies rarely found in my own musical bag, but there is also a substantial ratio of interesting developments, Sena’s personality lending coherence as he works at extending Spaulding’s guidelines. Plus, the lack of slickness often assists whenever the proceedings get too noodlesome, spacey, or grooved-out.

Sena even provided a theme, “Bali High” commencing the 2LP with a weave of serene flutes and cascading keyboard before erupting into a frenetic blend of hand drumming and jagged riffs. Spirited singing inserts the movie’s title and a stream of wordlessness prior to a stinging solo capped with squiggling prog synth near the end.

A few of the song titles tip-off their ingredients, and not necessarily in predictable ways. For example, “Reggae Blood” doubles as a guitar showcase; “Sitar” is exactly what an ear would expect, though it does add breadth. Other tracks contain the unexpected; “Winter” explores increasingly expansive tropical environs, while “Boeing Boeing Bong” jumps headfirst into an atmosphere of archaic tech.

Unfurling rhythms one might expect to discover on an early-‘80s videotape, its soaring keyboards don’t lack charm. “Dirty Fingers” is an unexceptional bit of lite-jazz wielding a lengthy and quite pleasant synthetic steel drum digression, “The Last Illusion” employs femme voice on a likeable piece of soft pop strengthened by sturdy rhythms, and “Mountain Song” is a shotgun wedding of hard rock chugging and Casio-tones.

The raw guitar, ELP-ish keyboard wooziness and brief echo-laden drum solo of “Litany” are an odd combo, but it’s “Martial That Thought” and the lengthier standout “Fisherman’s Dance,” both presenting tribal environments redolent of ethnographic field recordings, that are amongst Bali High’s least foreseen selections.

The off-kilter mellowness of “Ride” and the glistening air of “The Two Finger Concerto,” each fueled by maximum electric piano, aren’t as surprising in their contents. “Desire’s First Face” opens LP two, its distinctly ‘80s ambiance spiked with jazzy bits; it’s not a highlight, but in fairness Sena’s fusion sojourns don’t all lead to the lesser side of Bali High’s spectrum of quality, “Orchid II” oozing a patch of appealing fluidity amidst the riff progressions.

Really, the main dud here is “The Plains of Ginsasha,” its jazziness bluntly reeking like a sweaty headband jettisoned into a crowd by Jaco Pastorius. Elsewhere, rock attractions “Cannonade” and “Something You Like” struggle to tread water, and yet the former is immediately followed by the terrific swirling electro of “Under-ripples.”

“Agatha Trim” is frankly a much better stab at rocking. Weirdly, it comes off like a missive from the rootsier end of ‘80s college rock’s bandwidth. At six minutes it joins the guitar-stuffed “Balinese Bounce” as Bali High’s longest cuts, but sprinkled within are the abstract synth fragment “Mushroom FX” and the succinct fingerpicking of “Pausolition.”

The swell folk-rock instrumental “Nothing Just Happens” and the excellent psych-inflected excursion of “We Are Whole” reside in the middle ground, the pair assisting in raising this soundtrack’s overall grade. Ending side four is a short reprise of the opening theme; it reemphasizes the music’s ultimate function, but even minus visuals Bali High is a wildly uneven yet never boring ride.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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