Photography by Kevin Gubish
(EDIT: The band has informed us that we received the tracks out of order. The correct order is: 1. Get High, 2. West Coast, 3. Sunshine Drifters, 4. Out of the Brain, 5. Undercover. This makes the comments about flow less accurate.)
A couple of teaser singles aside, it’s been a while since we’ve heard from local rock band Bikini Islands. Their last full-length album dropped way back in February 2017. But on September 15th, the group (consisting of Kyle Wacker on lead vocals and guitar, Jeff Leichter on lead guitar, Josh Cortina on bass, and Eric Neugebauer on drums and vocals) will be releasing their brand-new five-song EP, New Haunts. The occasion will be marked with a release show the same night, at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls.
91.3 WYEP was on the nose when they described Bikini Islands’ sound as a “mix of surf rock, garage rock, and pop punk” during their feature on the radio station in August. If you’re into acts like The Hives, Best Coast, or fellow local band The Velcro Shoes, chances are you’ll find something to dig about these guys too. Wacker’s vocals recall prominent pop punk acts of the previous decade with their slightly nasal tone. And the guitar lines show solid range, from moody grunge to insistent, straight-up rock ‘n roll to surf’s dreamy, multilayered riffs. Leichter’s solos and phrases are both technically impressive and a lot of fun. Cortina’s bass provides a steady undercurrent, and the percussion from Neugebauer is a highlight. Playful tambourine and cymbal hits coexist with emphatic bass drum stomps—the thought put into each part is clear. It’s not just background framing, and it does a great job pulling you through each track. Instrumentally, New Haunts is strong.
Despite this clear strength, the album struggles a bit with flow and (occasionally) depth. Transitions between songs are a bit jarring, making the EP feel piecemeal as opposed to a coherent whole. As an example, the first track (the upbeat, debauchery-encouraging “Get High”) is immediately followed by the paranoid, minor-chord-heavy “Out of the Brain,” which is packed with fantastical horror-themed lyrics such as: “Whisper the incantation/the spell begins to sink in/Down the drain, and out of the brain.” These songs have plenty to offer individually—in fact, they’re my two favorites on the record. But moving from one to the other, especially right away, feels disjointed. “Undercover,” a darker track about an emotionally distant love interest, is also sandwiched between their two happier surf/beach songs. This was another order choice that took me somewhat out of the listening experience.
And while Bikini Islands lives up to its name with a couple of odes to beaches and California (“Sunshine Drifters” and “West Coast”), these tracks ring slightly hollow. They come off as more of a hodge-podge collection of related imagery, like piña coladas and bottles of sunscreen, than songs with compelling or creative stories. Travel and escape can be great songwriting inspirations, and I’m not suggesting that every song ever needs to be packed with deep, poignant meaning. But vague, free-associative, surface-level urges to go to the beach tend to work better with genres like bubblegum pop, dance, or house. Their pairing here with garage rock (despite the clear ‘surf’ influences) doesn’t quite work.
Still, New Haunts is decent indie rock fare, these growing pains aside. The group works well together instrumentally, and I’m interested in seeing where they go from here. But don’t just take my word for it—stream the opening track “Get High” below, or by clicking this link.
The EP will be available on most streaming/download platforms on Saturday, September 15th. The release show is set for the same night at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls, featuring The Vics as the opening act. The show also serves as the afterparty for the Millvale Days Festival, which begins on Thursday, September 13th. A festival bracelet gets you in for free, though space is limited. Otherwise, tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Doors open at 8 PM and the music gets underway at 9 PM. This event is 21+. Check out the Facebook event page for more details. And keep up with Bikini Islands directly here.