For the longest time, the music of Sofa Surfers had been synonymous with the laid-back groove that seemed to come out of every orifice of Vienna’s music scene in the mid- to late nineties. Among all the DJs and remixers, they stood out as a “proper” band, but the way they played their gigs was more like watching the live creation of a remix than any conventional band gig.
Even then you could tell that they were going to stick around when the party around them was long over. And so they did, their music becoming more abstract (see 1999’s “Cargo”), then more diverse (see 2002’s “Encounters”) and eventually more soulful, opening up a completely new cycle with 2005’s technically untitled “Red Album”, while exploring their penchant for creating atmospheric soundscapes on a series of acclaimed film soundtracks.
Traces of all of these incarnations are still present on their latest album “Blindside”, and yet this is, by some margin, the most “rock” Sofa Surfers album to date, at times even bordering on, dare we say it… metal.
“We always had a noise rock side to our music”, says singer Wolfgang Schlögl, pointing to their collaboration with the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart on “Encounters” as a prime example. He has a good point, but concedes that on “Blindside” the band, especially guitarist Wolfgang Frisch, have strayed further than ever inside the sort of territories they would have desperately avoided in their more dogmatically anti-rockist past. “Just this afternoon on the tour bus, Wolfgang [Frisch] said to me that this one is very much a riffing sort of album,” Schlögl says as we catch him on the phone during soundcheck at a Swiss venue, “It was a conscious step to do this, and it has been good to let him live out this side to his playing, but I guess on our next album we are going to blur things a bit again and go back to the drone.”
Listening to “Blindside”, you get a strong sense that the unusually aggressive tone of the album is much more than just a musical whim. There is a righteous anger in this sound. An edge. “Murder music, music to murder by,” sings Emmanuel Obeya in “Hardwire”: “You’re hardwired to build it up and smash it down again.”
This is “psychic shrapnel” cutting deep into the singer’s soul.
And let’s face it, there is plenty to be angry about in Austria these days. Living in this small country, you might not feel able to even tug at the shirt-tails of world politics. Wars are something you see on TV. But on the inside there is the struggle against the rise of right-wing populism and the lazy lethargy of those who want to preserve their quiet lives at all costs. “The politest oppression” as Obeya calls it in the brooding final track “Safe Zone”: “Won’t leave, can’t stay / Until I murder this place”. Obeya’s lyrics are fare too poetic and opaque to pass for protest songs. But this makes the strength of his feelings even more palpable, and the band is fully behind his every word, “feeding back what we carry inside us,” as Schlögl puts it.
Not the sort of sentiment that would remind you of the Viennese downtempo scene that Sofa Surfers emerged from all those years ago. Cliché has it that bands mellow out as they get older. In the case of Sofa Surfers, the cliché couldn’t be more wrong.