The genesis of Surrounded can be traced back to the turn of the century, and a decrepit summerhouse locked deep in Sweden’s southernmost forests. This is where Marten Rydell and Marcus Knutsson spent a year sowing the seeds of a musical odyssey that would see them earn glowing praise from critics the world over and support slots with indie pioneers such as Liars and Architecture In Helsinki, simultaneously suffering the myriad frustrations of label deals turned sour and poorly promoted tours.
Eight years later Surrounded’s core unit have weathered storms that might have killed off weaker bands while musical trends have fizzled and burnt out, all the while furthering and developing their unique sound – influenced as much by the forerunners of America’s alt-country scene as Sweden’s rich musical heritage.
But let’s return to aforementioned genesis. Reeling from bereavement and personal tragedies, Rydell and Knutsson subsequently decided to pack in their respective PhD and IT career and up sticks to a desolate area miles clear of civilisation. Despite the lack of proper heating, hot water and even a toilet, the place soon was crowded with recording gear, analogue keyboards and boundless creativity. When not collecting firewood to see them through the long Scandinavian winter, the pair worked unremittingly on the demos that would provide the foundation for debut album ‘Safety In Numbers’.
After a raft of said demos made their way across the Atlantic, independent imprint Deep Elm Records picked up on the band before eventually releasing the album in 2003, which consequently received flattering reviews and favourable comparisons to American musical heroes including Sparklehorse and The Flaming Lips.
Elated the world was waking up to their sound, the band embarked on four gruelling European tours over the next couple of years. Despite some poorly attended shows and a chaotic schedule, the band’s passion and live integrity saw them win over audiences and emerge triumphant. Ideas were also brewing, with plans afoot for a worthy follow-up to ‘Safety In Numbers’.
Ultimately though, this would be the task that almost broke them. With no guarantee of release and minimal resources available to the band, sessions were initially fraught. Changes in personnel followed, though the creative partnership at the hub of the group held fast, and with trademark resilience and belief the band soldiered on.
The culmination of this is stunning sophomore album ‘The Nautilus Years’. Swathed in crystalline strings and layers of beautifully crafted sound, the band are fiercely proud of this album (“we wouldn’t change a thing” says Rydell with admirable conviction), and its imminent arrival in the UK is cause for celebration – both for the band and the general public at large.
‘The Nautilus Years’ can be interpreted in a number of ways. Elegiac in its exploration of nature and innocence, if protest songs were filtered through the minds of oblique poets with a predilection for Mercury Rev and a classic pop sensibility, this is what they might sound like – vast, celestial and on occasion anthemic. And although only the former features on the record, Tom Malmros (bass), Johannes Linder (drums) and Erik Gustafsson (keys) combine to create the tightest and most effective unit of Surrounded yet.
The fuzzy euphoria of songs like ‘Safe Tomorrow Sun’ and ‘Paper Tangerine Crush’ recalls the sonic thrill of My Bloody Valentine or fellow Swedes The Radio Dept., while Rydell’s delivery on the more plaintive numbers (such as haunting ‘The Oceanographer’) evokes cult American singers Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) or Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse). ‘Easy Piranhas’ is discordant and bitter while ‘Swimming To Galapagos’ is a graceful, stately closer. Recorded and produced by the band themselves over a long, painstaking year, the craftsmanship and fervour at the heart of this album is evident for all to see. It is a rare, important and ambitious work: at once out of step with our modern world and exactly the tonic it needs.
Mårten Rydell(vo, keys, g)
Praise for ‘Safety In Numbers’:
SURROUNDED is another beautiful and brilliant achievement from Sweden. It's ironic how sounds and styles crafted right here in the USA spend a few summers abroad and come home, knowing, confident, matured, and wonderful to behold. Surrounded's peer group would include Sparklehorse, Grandaddy and Creeper Lagoon, all American bands that have developed the low-energy, phlegmatic style of crystal pure melodies and heavy narration.
Surrounded - Sweden's answer to the Flaming Lips - creates lush, modern rock on its artfully crafted debut album, "Safety in Numbers". The disc soon drifts into the abundant soundscape of "Exit Serenade" and here synths and Marcus Knutsson's guitar swoon in tandem around Mårten Rydell's thought-provoking lyrics. Song-poems like "Dear Nimby Waltz" seem to be more about mood than message, and one suspects that's Surrounded's point. This is an album that gives a little more away with each listen. And with adventurous songcraft like this, it's doubtful that disciples of Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse will mind dissecting pieces of this triumphant entry.
-All Music Guide
The time and care taken is telling when Surrounded gently seep into your stereo and wash out of your speakers, gentle Mercury Rev-esque songs haunt and sedate you almost simultaneously as deep laments are carefully concealed within layers of metaphors and richly textured tracks. Calling them lo-fi would be somewhat insulting as each song is a grand project rather than a mere musical meander.
The music itself is of the soaring spaced-out variety and offers few clues. It's all very innocent and playful, almost too much so, and you get the vague sense Surrounded may be using innocence to veil a deep political statement; the reality of American gluttony and the incompetence of our current administration are two easy targets that spring to mind. But the beauty of "Safety In Numbers" is that Surrounded coats these political truths in layers of gorgeous melody and opaque guitar noise.
Sweden's Surrounded created a truly celestial, compelling debut that communicates a meek and frail beauty-an ultimate idea that in some ways can be touched or embraced, yet in reality is always just a fingertip away. Singer Mårten Rydell is cryptic, but at the same time earnest and pleading. The ethereal, masterfully orchestrated music can sometimes disconnect one from his grim tales of kitten murders and crowds of apes, but serves to provide a shocking, invigorating reconnection.
Layered in lush instrumentation and deep sonic textures, "Safety In Numbers" from Surrounded is a complex and elaborately woven album. Their strength lies in the fact that they're in no hurry to get to catchy choruses and instead let their songs breathe and expand in dreamy bursts. Surrounded is a band that possess a rare hypnotic intensity.