Album Review: Motorists – Surrounded

[We Are Time/Debt Offensive/Bobo Integral; 2021]

Do you feel surrounded? By problems big and small, by those within and beyond your control? Toronto-based trio Motorists certainly do, so much that they’ve named their debut LP after it – not that they don’t try to escape that feeling, though. Throughout Surrounded, members Craig Fahner (guitar and vocals), Matthew Learoyd (bass and vocals), and Jesse Locke (drums) hit the open road in search of a way out. It’s a time-tested trope that’s equally reflected in their time-tested approach to pop and rock, one that follows the path of bands like R.E.M., The Go-Betweens, and Teenage Fanclub. Importantly, Motorists have the awareness and life experience to know an escape of any kind isn’t so simple (coincidentally, Teenage Fanclub also understood this per their latest album).

For newcomers like Motorists, the bar is set high for bands looking to mine such timeless themes. And on Surrounded, the trio delivers 12 solid songs that offer variations of perspective and genre experimentations that elevate the immediate familiarity of their music. “I was surrounded,” Fahner admits on the album’s opening and title track; with his deadpan delivery and frustrated string plucking, the song captures an anxious energy more akin to Parquet Courts and B Boys. The lo-fi-esque production of “New Day” leans more into the aesthetics of bands like Omni and Pool Holograph. Unlike their more playful Canadian contemporaries Kiwi Jr. — where singer Jeremy Gaudet in particular delivers his observations with a diffusing levity — Motorists aren’t afraid to let some dread seep into their sound.

The results include several songs that see the band stay true to their jangling-guitar predecessors while still expressing their feelings of the moment. “Go back / There’s still time to see it through,” goes the chorus of “Go Back”, a reminder that running away is never a true solution (or, let’s be honest, still isn’t an option for many). The song moves from its twinkling opening guitar strumming with the grungy shreds and squalling feedback following Fahner’s final chorus delivery. “Vainglorious” takes the opposite approach: the song’s jittery opening riff moves nicely into a pleasant guitar progression that calls back to the work of bands like The Go-Betweens and The Bats.

Overall, it seems that Motorists are the most compelling when infusing elements of krautrock and motorik into their work. Learoyd’s bass on “Latent Space”, for example, gives the song a thumping and expansive drive that complements Fahner’s slide into an existential crisis (“Wading into the latent space / It grows, liminal”). The pressure is only relieved when he comes to an underwhelming realization: “Now we belong to the edge of the known / And all that we know is the edge of the world.”

It helps that Motorists dedicate as much time to self-examination as they do to the realization that so much is out of their control. “You hear that ringing / Well that’s the time / It’s being dragged along by hidden hands divine,” Learoyd sings on “Hidden Hands”. Motorists also make clear that those with the power to affect change hardly do shit. “You were the one raising up the flag / You were the one striking the match,” Fahner sings on “Vainglorious”, exposing how politicians only virtue signal and posture. Bands like Ducks Ltd., who draw from similar musical influences, wrap their social commentaries in breezy, tightly-produced melodies. Motorists, however, aren’t afraid to hide their frustrations.

Yet it’s on Surrounded’s manic closer “The Door” that the album’s themes come full-circle. Driven by the unwavering energy of all three members, Fahner lashes out at the return of someone long gone; “When you get through the door / Forget me,” he declares. The song ends with a driving guitar solo that reflects the dizzying rush that comes from taking such a significant risk, and realizing the consequences that can come from them. “Better to know? / Or better to go?” Fahner asks them in the second verse, knowing either choice wouldn’t have made them feel any less surrounded.