The opening track of Oppenheimer and Woodstock, ‘Terra Firma Legion Farewells’, begins with a sample of a famous utopian speech given by nineteenth century liberal William Jennings Bryan to the Democratic National Convention in 1900, which may seem a strange choice for a Swedish band, but then very little of what Surrounded do is conventional.
Hailing from the Swedish musical capital of Gothenburg Surrounded have adopted an incredibly authentic blend of low-fi Americana, not unlike Danish band Choir of Young believers, but blended it with a Scandinavian tradition of experimentalism.
Their third album since they formed in 2000, and their second for label One Little Indian, Oppenheimer and Woodstock has afforded the band the opportunity to take their sound in an even more rarefied and enigmatic direction, without losing sight of their incredibly affecting musicality thanks to stunning production work from Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai), Bill Racine (The Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse) and Paul Mahajan (TV on the Radio, The National).
Despite regularly evoking comparisons with The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy, Surrounded are just as influenced by the seventies experimentalism of Pink Floyd, but what really sets them apart is lead singer Marten Rydell’s astonishly raw and emotional lyrics. In fact his voice is so unassumingly honest, so lacking in the usual guile and indie posturing of modern music, that it takes a couple of listens before it really sinks in how utterly beautiful it is. Backed by subtle synths and ethereal orchestral flurries, Martin’s voice soars upon a blanket of sonic jet streams, reaching its full quivering potential on ‘1000 Colour Clash’, where it seems he’s desperately trying to hold back sobbing spasms of emotion.
The album’s boldest statement comes with ‘My Neighbours Blood is Coke’, which like many of the tracks is driven by a simple backbone of acoustic guitar that gives way to spacey orchestration and ends in a devastating climax of crashing synths, perfectly capturing the song’s apocalyptic nihilism as expressed in the line: “the hipster and the autocrat go sell your kids for slaw”. But it’s not all Grimm Scandinavian winter nights, as the album cleverly weaves dreamy optimism and down-beat melancholy so well that it’s hard to know what mood you should be in to begin listening.
The album’s title itself emblemises this duality between hope and despair perfectly by pairing the inventor of the atom bomb with the iconic festival of peace and love, suggesting that the two elements are not as far removed as they might at first seem. Marten explains it far better than I could when he says: “It’s been suggested that it could be read as a metaphor for ‘war and peace’ but to me it is more ambiguous: Oppenheimer lead “The Manhattan Project” but was at an early stage morally troubled by its effects and started working post-war toward disarmament. Woodstock had its aura of peace and love, but one can question where it has subsequently lead western civilization: individualism, condo loneliness and diverse problems to do with feeling ‘loved’.” Just like Surrounded’s incredibly deep and layered sound, morality and human history are a tangled affair. It’s refreshing to come across such a complex, mature take on human nature, as well as such a sophisticated sound, in contemporary music.