Firewalkers has had a long road. The original plan was to have it released at the 2017 SurfGuitar101, and The Mystery Men? even played the album in its entirety, essentially treating it as an album release. However, it missed that date and instead they released a preview EP called Embers with some choice cuts from the album. So naturally it felt like it was just around the corner. A year later, they released a GoFundMe revealing that they had been robbed and needed some help to see the light of day. And again, there were preview clips of this record, a few more crumbs.
That GoFundMe hasn’t been a roaring success (hint, hint) but Firewalkers is real. I have heard it. And it’s kind of wonderful that it will make its true debut, CD copies on-hand, at Southern Surf Stompfest, essentially their own event on their home turf.
Firewalkers begins with a 30-second intro track with middle eastern vibes, leading into the opener “Adhan” which itself has an extended intro trying on different guitar styles than the familiar surftone that it soon breaks into. On one hand it reminds me of the song “Sun & Sand”, the breezy intro to The Madeira’s seminal Sandstorm (do you want to hear me gush about that?). I like that aspect, it tells you to treat this album as a thoughtful work of art (though you will never hear me speak ill of an artless, fun-focused surf record). However, I think it overreaches a bit, tells you to expect something strange and experimental, and while I don’t think Firewalkers is devoid of that, I think misses the heart of the record. But that really doesn’t matter, you keep listening.
This really isn’t the bold new face of The Mystery Men? The sound of this record isn’t a departure from their excellent LP Sonos Delirium and the first two tracks will remind you of that in the best way, making you think “hot damn, it’s another Mystery Men? Record!”
But it’s the slow-moving ballad “Sky Lanterns” that’s the first differentiator. You’ll rarely find me espousing the virtues of the slow songs of records but they really tap into something wonderful and sweet here, and the tune will stick with you on the first listen. It reminds me of The Shadows’ “Theme for Young Lovers” (high praise from me, I walked down the aisle to that song). Right as you’re getting a little lulled by the lullaby, the last third of the song breaks into a new verse, breathing new life into it.
The heart of this record is, well, heart. Even the next song “Twice as Bright”, much brighter and backed by a surfbeat, has an emotionality to the guitar. Firewalkers often feels sombre, lonely, hopeful, mournful. Part of what I like about instrumental music is the freedom to interpret a song in your own way, but this is also a testament to the ability to transmit emotion through mere vibration from strings.
The other big winner here is melody. As a voracious surf consumer I’d heard a lot of this album before I actually heard it, but on the 2nd and 3rd listen I found myself cross-referencing the material they had already released to confirm that I had not already been listening to some of these songs for months.
There’s a good balance to the sweet songs with some louder, more powerful songs like “Overlord” and “Proud March of the 9th”, the latter of which bears some similarities to The Madeira’s “Ricochet”. “Hotel Loneliness” isn’t exactly meant to overpower, but there’s a metal-influenced menace to the growling bassline. There’s also a very jazzy breakdown to one of my favorites “Dancing with Andromeda”.
For those of us that whet our appetites with Embers, there are changes to some of these songs. While I suspect there were simply mastering changes to “Happy Kingdom by the Sea” and some different mixing to “Rubicon” (one of my favorites), the Spaghetti-Westernish closer “Make Me No Grave” is significantly reworked with much more prominent (or even new?) acoustic guitar elements and a bit more accordion front-and-center.
At 16 tracks this is a hefty album and with each listen you’ll find another track leap out at you a bit more. Firewalkers was worth the wait and worth a way-too-long review. I need to hurry up and listen to it a few more times before seeing them play it at StompFest.
I normally release my reviews on the release date, but this is a bit early in hopes to bring a few more people to that GoFundMe page. Not only is the music worth it on its own, but the members of The Mystery Men? are luminaries of instro music in the southeast region of the US, tireless promoting bands and putting on shows. Even if you’re a monster that feels nothing from these songs, you can at least feel good supporting their cause. When it's actually released there will be CD copies, bandcamp, and with your help vinyl.