The Columbus, Ohio music scene is a lot like our own in that there is an abundance of great bands in the area but there isn’t a representative sound tying them all together. That scene’s diversity is exemplified throughout the latest Swarming Branch full-length, Surreal Number, released last spring on Northern Kentucky’s SofaBurn Records. It is the band’s first collection of new material since 2013’s acclaimed and beautifully erratic Classic Glass.
Just as no single sound characterizes the city of Columbus, Swarming Branch is equally determined to maintain their uniquely unclassifiable sonic profile on Surreal Number. Frontman Andrew Graham has explained that the album’s title refers to a mathematical system that includes real numbers and infinite and infinitesimal numbers, which is a good description of an album that features an encyclopedic range of styles. Graham himself shifts his vocal stance from Ray Davies’ dance hall days to Mike Scott’s laconic passion in the Waterboys to Jonathan Richman’s naïve smirk in the service of wonderfully obtuse lyricism that channels Brian Eno, David Byrne and Marc Bolan. Meanwhile, vocalist/guitarist Graham and the band, including longtime studio keyboardist Dane Terry and producer Rob Barbato on bass, feints and jabs with a soundtrack that conjures up visions of acid-tinged Folk Disco, Pop-pasted New Wave, 8-bit Synth Pop, pinwheeling carnival Rock, Gospel Glam and anything else that might erupt from the bubbling sonic cauldron in which they mix up their whimsical musical medications.
For Surreal Number, Swarming Branch steered away from the single-minded experimentalism of its earlier output — the aforementioned Classic Glass and 2010’s Andrew Graham’s Good Word, as well as music dating back to when the group went by the name RTFO Bandwagon — to create actual songs featuring the group’s cracked-prism refraction of structure, genre and historical context.
On a single listen, Surreal Number might seem off putting, if not nearly impenetrable, but like an initially disorienting ride on a particularly circuitous rollercoaster, repeated exposure ultimately leads to fervent expectation for the next experience — and the next and next.