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Songs of anxiety

Gentleman Surfer is experimental music for the stout of spirit

Gentleman Surfer’s disjointed rock rattles nerves. Photo credit: Facebook

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Music serves different purposes at different times. For a large majority of people, music helps to calm the nerves and transport the listener out of the pummeling existence of everyday life. In a climate like the one we're currently inhabiting, this soothing effect becomes a necessity, lest we all simultaneously succumb to burst blood vessels and frantically unhelpful dreams. Still, there are some people out there that have a relationship to music that is distinctly separate from how a lot of people would describe "deriving pleasure."

Sometimes, music doesn't need to have a good bedside manner. Jazz, in its many forms, has been confounding the expectations of listeners for years and years, and its redheaded stepchild in experimental rock is even less inclined to ease your harried mind. Rather, artists dedicated to experimentation nurture a habit of implementing electric shocks to your cerebral cortex, raising your heart rate and making your palms sweaty with an undefinable anxiety. Music critics, through years of listening to largely uninspired bands, are susceptible to finding themselves drawn to such challenging artists - which brings me to Gentleman Surfer.

For the most part, I can leave a band's music playing as I write about them, but doing that with Gentleman Surfer would likely give me a panic attack. Originally started as the solo project of Sacramento artist Jon Bafus, Gentleman Surfer evolved into a full band that revels in jangling your nerves. From the opening, frenzied moments of "T the T," the first track on Gentleman Surfer's 2015 LP, Gold Man, the band announces itself as one that is fascinated in the balance between chaos and order. Like its forefathers Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Residents, Gentleman Surfer is obsessed with exploring form and texture above all else. Not a single second on any song resembles anything one might charitably call a hook.

This is avant-garde music that takes no prisoners. If you ever find yourself taking a toehold in a song, Bafus and company are driven to knock you on your ass with another burst of dissonant jabs and disorienting tempos. It's like waking up in the dirt and realizing the fight ended before you knew it even began. Bafus acts as bandleader, but his musical roots are embedded in the drums. As a result, the songs of Gentleman Surfer are inextricably linked to maniacal percussion; Bafus will find an orthodox time signature and, like a dog getting distracted by a passing car, find himself speeding along a different path before you have the opportunity to acclimate. Gentleman Surfer is progressive rock for the stout of spirit.

All of this to say nothing of the little details Gentleman Surfer throw in to add a creeping unease to the listening experience. "Test Ends" is a typically disjointed song, but it provides an additional layer of discomfort by incorporating barely audible chatter underneath the pandemonium of the instruments. At times, the music seems improvisational, akin to free jazz's loose relationship to structure and sensibility, though it's hard to think that there's never a firm authorial hand directing Gentleman Surfer.

If you're the type of person who enjoys being challenged by music, then you should of course give Gentleman Surfer a chance as they tour in support of their brand new album, Reanimate Ore. If you don't know why someone would subject themselves to this kind of music, I'd suggest listening to a lot more music. At its best, music can encapsulate most all of our life experiences, and I'd argue the majority of those experiences aren't that pleasant. A band like Gentleman Surfer can help inoculate you to the more insane times.

Gentleman Surfer, w/ Angel Food, Poppet, Saturday, Nov. 5, 9 p.m., $7, Obsidian, 414 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.890.4425, obsidianolympia.com

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