When trying to think of an appropriate comparison to make in order to shed light on the sound of Christopher Willits’ Surf Boundaries little comes to mind. Experimental, orchestrated, electronic-pop flavored bands are a pretty rare breed, and the most relevant thing I can come up with is Jaga Jazzist, but even the the ten-piece Norweigan ensemble is a far cry from an accurate comparison. Insead, what comes to mind as appropriate illustrations for Willits are descriptive words, colors, movement, and the ideas of theme and solidarity. For Willits and his latest album, the biggest difference maker is an unrivaled sense of sonic inhibition.
Never at any point during Surf Boundaries, Willits’ third release and his first for Detroit’s Ghostly International, does it feel like the composition is hedging too aggressively towards a hook or an end (two vitally inherent conventions of pop music). The organic flow makes Willits’ musical blend seamless and void of any major disruptions; the overall idea is very experimental and electronic. But even that word – electronic – is a descriptive misnomer; in its greater sound aesthetic Surf Boundaries doesn’t always boast what one would traditionally consider as an “electronic” attitude.
This musician/tinkerer and his collective – which shows off an adept collage of musicians from horn and string orchestral players to wall-of-sound rock ‘n’ rollers – are more concerned with the finished composition than with the particular instrument used to create it. In each sound there is an extension of an overall feeling, one that is brought on by crescendos, accentuations, distortion, effective repetition, and countless other effects. There are tracks (“Saturn”) that ride airy background sounds with glitchy electronic popping noises for two full minutes, and lead into songs full of indie-pop vocal harmony (“Green and Gold”) that would bring Sufjan Stevens and his after-school special band to their knees. Down moments are not filler, instead they are set-ups or simply the quieter sides of a multi-level musician and his helpers.
Another edge of confusion to the overall pinpointing of style here is Willits’ use of vocals and meaningful lyrics. Similar to the aforementioned Jaga Jazzist, the singing is all done in choral harmony and drones, and on Surf Boundaries it sounds amazing. The fact that a good part of this album was written reflecting a personal relationship in Willits’ life makes the vocal urgings and guitar loops and experimental electronic freakouts that much more personal. He was really in it, and this effect bleeds through on all levels.