If there's one thing you need to know about Chicago's Brett Sova, it's that he shreds. He records under the name Axis: Sova, which stands as a solo project in the studio but morphs into a full band on the road, and in either formation the most interesting element is easily his guitar. When there is percussion on Early Surf (his second LP, and his first for Ty Segall's God? Recordsimprint), it's minimal, synthetic, and purely functional. He's only two full-lengths in, but he's already established a reputation for buzzing, unsteady, occasionally muffled psych music spiked with a few giant guitar solos for good measure. He's established a formula—"avant garde yet burly"—that he delivers once again with Early Surf.
The trouble with this sort of psychedelia is that it sometimes veers toward abstraction and facelessness. That's definitely a concern here, as Sova's somewhat of an elusive figure in his music. He's the guitar-wielding figure on the album's cover, his features blotted out by blinding light, singing poems that address uncertainty and unclear identities. His distorted and effects-laden vocals cut off words, and he occasionally comes across as dour and reserved, but his oblique storytelling (with references, for example, to the overpowering nature of artificial light and television) and amorphous guitar leads hint at a larger aesthetic unity. On "Ask Me About My Smell", in which a woman named Heather does, indeed, ask him about his smell, he steps away from his heavier persona and lets a sense of humor shine through.
Early Surf's best moments brim with potential. "Fractal Ancestry" shows a guitarist and songwriter unafraid to explore different approaches: Over seven minutes, Sova's guitar melody operates within a loose structure, but things always seem to be in a state of flux. His solos guide the song down alternate routes as he continually shifts the balance from the right speaker to the left, peppered throughout with sci-fi sound effects. Again, his approach mirrors his lyrics: "Open the door, let it close behind you. What do you see now? It's just another door." At his best, Sova seems like the type of guy who could endlessly swing open new doors to unexpected places.
Unfortunately, a few of the songs just don't have legs. The two-minute track "Secret Hand" seems to be building to something enormous before it just sort of fizzles out. It happens again on the album's title track: Sova named his band after a classic Jimi Hendrix LP, and for a brief moment at the start of the song, it seems like he's going to do his namesake proud by springboarding off his earworm and heading into the stratosphere. Instead, he just stays the repetitive course, only changing his approach in the song's final seconds. Sova's undeniably the sort of guy you want to hear go long—the lengthier jams are undeniably the best. When he's not going on an epic journey, however, he winds up spinning in place.