Music reviews typically are here to answer one question: Is it any good? I operate by a "if you don't have anything nice to say..." rule so my answer is always either "yes" or I avoid answering. However, a new Ventures record is under heavier scrutiny, and will likely face nastier questions like, "Are these actually The Ventures?" and "Should I even care?" After all, this is their first LP in 24 years, and the lineup contains zero original members.
Vincent and Magdalena of Hi-Tide Recordings appear to think the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic "yes." While I wouldn't say that Hi-Tide is a guaranteed seal of excellence (what record label is?), they seem pretty choosy and I don't recall a single record or band that was a total dud. And in this case they knew what they were getting into; this record was actually released last year, but with very little fanfare, Japan-only, and zero ways to stream a note that I could find. Not only are Hi-Tide endorsing it by pressing it to vinyl on their label, but they committed the headlining spot of their Summer Holiday festival to them, in font that's roughly 2.5x bigger than the next act.
So what even makes something a Ventures record? A lot of people believe that anything without Nokie is dookie, but I think it's pretty key to understand that Nokie is hardly infallible. I just picked up a reissue of their 1983 NASA 25th Anniversary album that has the classic lineup and let me tell ya, it did not need a reissue. If you engage with The Ventures past their greatest hits, even in the classic lineup era, you're going to be swimming in mediocrity. Most of their material was covers and churned out at a rate of 3-7 LPs per year. There are timeless songs on nearly every one of those LPs (and you can't forget the 45s), but sometimes only 2-4 notable songs per record and found by going through the tracks and seeing which ones are credited to Wilson-Taylor-Edwards-Bogle. Don't get me wrong, The Ventures are a legendary group that lead millions of people to play guitar, and some of their songs are immaculate classics... but if we're talking consistency there are many modern groups that are better. In fact, if an average Ventures record were released today under a different name, I don't think many people would notice.
I'm not going to try to convince you that anything Gerry McGee era onward is better than you perceive it. Would you expect me to after calling most of their work mediocre? But I'm very happy that The Ventures are still out there. The Ventures are THE Ambassadors of Instrumental rock & roll. I mean yeah, The Shadows were pretty big worldwide and I don't know how to even quantify a comparison of influence between the two, but I'll give it to The Ventures for being a little more rock & roll. They've been going since 1958 with different members, gradually reaching the Ship of Theseus we've now built.
I like the idea of keeping a torch burning. An emblem of the artform, there for those who need to be reminded. And why not these guys? Bob Spalding was a studio member since 1980, then played bass after Bogle stepped down in 2005, rhythm guitar after Bogle stepped down, then lead after Gerry McGee stepped down. In the 90s Leon Taylor replaced his dad Mel Taylor, who technically wasn't original lineup, but he's the person somebody thinks of when you say "Ventures drummer". Bob Spalding added his son Ian in 2016. Luke Griffin on bass... well I don't know what his ties are. Bob Spalding and Leon have enough of a legacy connection with The Ventures that they make a lot of sense, at least on paper.
It should be noted that this exact lineup was at one point billing themselves as V2 and created an Indiegogo campaign to create an album with the intention to "preserve and further instrumental rock music." That Indiegogo raised roughly 1/6th of its goal, though I don't like to pass judgement on crowdfunding campaigns -- they're very difficult and there's a lot of reasons why they can fail regardless of merit. Granted this is Indiegogo, not Kickstarter, so they received all of these funds, but to my knowledge that album never came about. I don't know why they named it V2, but I certainly read it as "Ventures 2".
It should also be noted that while this is the first proper LP, this lineup has released other records under The Ventures name. Discogs pulls up two Japanese double albums: Here We Go Again and Live at Daryl's House, both of which seem to be mostly playing classics by The Ventures and others. I haven't heard them.
So seven paragraphs in, can I finally answer the question posed in the first paragraph: Is this album any good? Obviously I can't! If this is the sort of noise flying through my head as I listen, I clearly can't evaluate it in an unbiased manner. But I know I'm not the only one that is thinking about all this stuff. Hopefully some won't. Some of you probably know The Ventures more than I do and might have even more thoughts about it. And don't worry, I do too!
But I do like this album. I think it gets off to a wobbly start with a cover of "Fly Me To The Moon," which is also their lead single. I think it's a puzzling decision, though I guess it's pretty Ventures in that it's a fairly safe cover of a pretty toothless and well-known song. Man, that's like the meanest thing I've ever written on this blog. But it's fine, it's just a weird choice to roll out first when you're a band with a really big onus to show us what you've got.
Most of the songs are originals! Possibly the most The Ventures have ever featured on an LP! And I think that's not only welcome, but necessary in a modern context as a band with a lot to prove. And what really strikes me is that I can believe this is a Ventures record. It doesn't sound surf, and it certainly doesn't sound like 1961 Ventures, but The Ventures were never a band that stuck to a classic sound either. They used plenty of effects. Some people say that "2000 Pound Bee" was the first song with a fuzz pedal. It's hard to pin down, but I feel like there's something about the song structure, lead melodies, rhythm guitar, etc that sounds more like The Ventures than anybody else I can think of.
The songs are mostly tied together with a space theme, but their adherence to that theme is pretty loose. "The Alien" retains a lot of the mystery and adventure of "Journey to the Stars," but "Space Suit" is a leisurely jaunt that feels like it could be anywhere. And that's fine; fun even! "High Noon on the Moon" goes Western, and the album ends with an unserious and lighthearted "Last Party on the Moon," opting for something very laid back to counter a lot of the high adventure demonstrated elsewhere on the record.
That said, the more spacey things are probably the ones I found more enjoyable, with a very full and fat sound, full of buzzy soundtrack-ey treatment. I do think a lot of cues were taken from the Ventures in Space record, and that's certainly not the worst well to draw from. "The Mercury Run" features a buzzy sound that sits right on the line between synth and fuzz guitar -- and I'm embarrassed to say I don't know which one it actually is! There's a cover of The Ventures track (can you cover yourself?) "Vibrations" off of Super Psychedelics that does a good job of ramping up the psychedelic element, particularly on the breakdown at the end.
I really think there's a lot of creativity in these tracks, particularly if you give them some decent speakers to work with (going back through them on my laptop speakers now is robbing them of their magic). If you're an optimist that wants to love the new Ventures, I think this record really does it right. I really think they keep the spirit of old Ventures while introducing us to something fun and fresh.
If you're a New Ventures pessimist, however, we aren't done yet.
I started writing this article weeks ago, not just because it never seems to end, but because I was mostly on vacation with my wife, toddler and infant in Long Island, and when that's your lineup a vacation means less time, not more of it. What I didn't know when I started this article, was that my wife, as thanks for some solo parenting in New York City, would reconfigure our vacation plans to swing by Asbury Park for one night of Hi-Tide Summer Holiday.
As an aside: Hi-Tide isn't going to get a full write-up from me like Surfguitar101 did because my experience was so limited. I was only there for the night portion of Saturday... and I also missed 184.108.40.206's entirely because... Insert coin, LET'S PINBALL! -- I got tied up at a particularly alluring machine at the pinball museum down the street. From what I could tell, it was a similar experience to when I went in 2019. I love what they're doing out there, it's a different animal than SG101 and Surfer Joe. Ichi-Bons were great and Surfrajettes were the highlight of the show for me.
I got right up front for The Ventures because I was pretty hyped on this new LP. I believe they started as their album does, with "Fly Me to the Moon", and if memory serves (it rarely does), went into "Journey to the Stars," then their new song "The Alien." I'm going to be brutally honest here, I just wasn't feeling it. Plenty of people were, but I found their performance rather stiff and lackluster. I've seen a few videos, and the original Ventures were never pyrotechnical amazing performers, but they did look comfortable and generally nailed it. I heard flubbed notes all over. "Flight of the Bumblebee" felt like they bit off more than they could chew, and "Apache" sounded particularly bad to me.
I left early, not entirely because it wasn't to my taste, but because the clock was heading past midnight and an infant doesn't care how late I was out last night. I missed, I assume, "Walk Don't Run" and "Hawaii Five-O". Based on a youtube video of the performance a lot of the encore was Leon Taylor going bananas on drums.
Looking around from both my front-row position and from further back, my sour feelings did not seem to represent the majority. However, there were other things that really bugged me about it. Bugged me enough to abandon my "if you don't have anything nice to say" rule. For one, they played more Top Ten Surf Hits by other artists ("Out of Limits", "Wipeout", "Sleepwalk", "Tequila", et al) than Ventures favorites, which would make sense to me if this were the Asbury Park boardwalk, but this is a highly specific crowd with a lot of people that know deep cut Ventures and might hope to hear them.
But what really got under my skin was how they addressed being The Ventures, specifically when they said "Here's our second single, Perfidia." None of you were there for that! And in the time that I was there, they gave no hints that they weren't. An average Joe would likely assume that since Bob Spalding looks pretty old, he must be "The Ventures guy" and made that single. Now I'm aware that not everybody would share my opinion on how to do this, but I say if you're going to be the torch-bearers, talk about the previous ones that held it. Tell me a story about Bob Bogle. Acknowledge and honor them.
At Surfguitar101 a few years ago they had Venturesmania with Deke Dickerson, Mel Bergman and other stewards of surf culture just doing their best tribute, and Deke, doing what he does, told us stuff he'd learned about them. It occurred to me that I suppose I had already seen The Ventures show I wanted to see: extremely capable musicians that made the audience appreciate the music more than they already did.
And that's why this bugs me so much. If The Ventures are the supposed to be the beacon that brings people to the music, teaches them to love guitar, I just don't see this being it. Maybe they can become it. It's a tough nut to crack, and I think they did a great job doing it with their LP, but something needs to change if I'm going to accept this as THE Ventures.
Oh, and they didn't play Mosrites.