The trip-hop act Sofa Surfers was founded by a quartet of sound-obsessed Viennese instrumentalists: Wolfgang Schl”gl, Markus Kienzl, Wolfgang Frisch, and Michael Holzgruber. The group's debut single, "Sofa Rockers," earned a remix from fellow Austrian head Richard Dorfmeister, and their debut album, Transit, earned wide release through MCA. Cargo and Constructions: Remixed and Dubbed followed three years later.
Sofa Surfers : Transit - 1997 - Klein Records
Note du chroniqueur :
une ‚toileune ‚toileune ‚toileune ‚toile (l‚gende)
1. Bon Voyage
2. Fiaker (Driving Home To Hasenearl)
3. Walking Ghosts
5. The Plan
8. Lost Muchachos
9. Sofa Rockers
10. Tse Tse Fly
11. Dead Men Tell No Tales
14. Lada Taiga
15. Life In Malmoe
16. No More Bonjour
In the laptop world, it's a tough gig to make convincing dub music. As the exemplary reissue label Blood and Fire demonstrates with their every release, dub is all about the clash of human creativity and technological ineptitude. King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry were pioneers because they overcame the gulf between their imaginations and the thrift-store sound equipment they had access to. Thus, Tubby relied on the beloved primitive sound effects of accidental tape-hiss and drop-outs as much he relied on the echo chamber. Very few present-day digi-dubbers resist the temptation to defuzz and cleanse their rootical offerings. Like Ryan Moore's Twilight Circus Dub Sound System and Oswald von Moritz's Rhythm and Sound project, the Austrian quartet Sofa Surfers relish and emulate the mystical lo-fi glamour of classic dub.
But unlike Moore and von Moritz, Sofa Surfers are not mere copyists. Cargo, the band's unnerving and astounding debut album, plotted a course from Crooklyn dub ("Container") and Ital wisdom ("Sweat") to Massive Attack-ish future-funk trip-hop ("The Low Rider") and avant-metal Rastafarian hip-hop ("Beans and Rice"). The remix album, Constructions, magnified Cargo's oppressive hydroponic power with dubs and reworkings by such sun-shy, sunken-cheeked masters of the out-there, slo-mo roller as Spectre, Mad Professor, Howie B and Eardrum.
Encounters is no doubt intended as a continuation of the collaborative aesthetic of Constructions. Yet, despite Sofa Surfers' valiant attempts, the record suffers occasionally from thread-bare talent having a shoddy go at underground hip-hop or slouchy lounge ballads. In such cases, Sofa Surfers relegate themselves to providing moody soundscapes for their guests to faff around in. However, when they encounter true talent, the quartet approaches the essential toughness of Cargo.
This record opens with "Formula," featuring would-be macker Sensational and his claims about being the "real deal" and "too much for ya." Sensational rides a crisp drum-track similar to Cargo's "Container" and Axelrod-y breaks that DJ Shadow and other crate-diggers have been appropriating for years. The thesaurus-plundering wordplay continues with Oddateee's "21st Century Army." Oddateee's message is the standard vision of a Blade Runner future. But despite the Corporation's oppression of masses, Oddateee lives up to his nom de guerre by proclaiming himself an oddity who's as "large as an aircraft carrier." Wow. What a flat simile. Oddateee isn't exactly in Saul Williams' league.
"River Blues," features the droopy, drawled vocal talent of Jeb Loy Nichols. The cut previously made an appearance on Sincerely Yours, Klein Records' most recent label compilation, but failed to shine much amongst all that disc's fluff. Here, in its true context, it is, unsurprisingly, not much better. But at least the scratchadelic bridge makes some sort of sense after Sensational's and Oddateee's raps. Still, the Surfers only exert themselves about as much as Nicols, losing steam after drudging up a heap of worn-out-groove fuzz-hiss.
It takes the dancehall chat of DJ Collage and "Babylon Tymes" to get things bouncing out of complaisance. While Collage doesn't have the gruff fury of Elephant Man or the righteous zeal of Sizzla, his Babylon-vexing patter spurs Sofa Surfers into laying down a feisty echo-abundant roller. Then comes the avant-garde illbience of "Twisted Tongue," serving as a nice transition between the routine of the disc's first half to the more adventurous and successful second.
Featuring the dynamic duo of Techno Animal and 2nd Gen collaborator D„lek, "Elusive Scripts" bucks as "Formula" should have. D„lek doesn't have to fake like Sensational. He's a thoroughly credible MC who doesn't rely on dopey bragging rhymes to proclaim his greatness-- he shows rather than tells. With "See the Light," Junior Delgado makes an irrefutable case for him to take over Horace Andy's position in Massive Attack. With talent like Delgado, Sofa Surfers have to come up with something special. Using Massive Attack's crawling version of John Holt's "Man Next Door" as a model, "See the Light" is unmistakably this album's standout cut. Dawna Lee comes on like a super-sultry Dawn Penn, thus making "Witness" a knock-out gorgeous R&B ballad. But in direct opposition to the beauty of "Witness," the collaboration with ex-Pop Group member and On U Sound System affiliate Mark Stewart, "Home Truth," is a hamfisted industrial dub rocker. Stewart, it seems, is never going to achieve the distinction of his 1990 electro-dub masterpiece Metatron, and Sofa Surfers don't appear too keen on helping him better himself.
Encounters ends quite unexpectedly with the skipping, skuzzed-up marimba jaunt "Gamelan," which recalls the ingenious playfulness Klein Records' star artist, Seelenluft. It's almost as though Seelenluft is an uncredited guest here. "Gamelan" makes the inescapable point that Sofa Surfers don't really need guests and collaborators to make unique and engaging music. In fact, Encounters proves that, more often than not, the guests prevent the band from stretching themselves, and hinder them from matching or exceeding their remarkable Cargo and Constructions. Go it alone next time, boys.
-Paul Cooper, February 6th, 2002
Leaf / Klein / Virgin
hoose your side of the line, revolution or reaction. And then realise that they are one and the same and the line is arbitrary. Is all great music reactionary? Does music inspire revolution (sex & drugs)? Something's rotten in the state of Austria. Resurgent right-wing politics have given counter-cultural motivation to a generation sick of conservatism and exploitative economics. It's easy enough for me to say this; living in England all I've got out of Austria's troubled political climate is some fucking great music. These guys actually have to live there, in the shadow of potential darkness.
Encounters is a collaborative concept album, Sofa Surfers taking their paranoid dub-hop into brave new worlds with the help of an eclectic slew of vocalists including hip hoppers Sensational and Dalek, bruised On U Sound veteran Mark Stewart, reggae king Junior Delgado, buzzing dancehall haunter DJ Collage and folk-blues figure Jeb Loy Nichols, each adding a different spin and layer to the politically uneasy soundscapes. Drums are live and upfront, moving with an insistent imperative over layered sonic swells and growling, crawling dub bass. "What Kind Of World" captures the insinuated menace Death In Vegas touched upon in Dead Elvis but ties it to a degree of content that adds substance to the undoubted style, something Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes never managed. "21st Century Army" could be a Def Jux production, Oddatee's unerring Vast Aire-meets-El-P rumble demanding "show me your way of life / and show me your identification card" with the resigned malevolence of Judge Dredd.
There must be something in the Vienna water engendering the populace towards creating exquisite electronic and dub music; like both Kruder & Dorfmeister and Fennesz, Sofa Surfers are highly accomplished sound-manipulators. They merge beats and sonics into a seamless whole, veering between electronica, hip/trip hop, dub and reggae and taking in an expansive palette of sounds, brooding strings and sarcastic applause laid-up with church bells and ominous clatter and drone. "Home Truths" approaches doom-laden industrial dub-rock, Mark Stewart muttering/shouting disgustedly about "hypocrisy" over a swarm of electronic bees, destructive scratching and clanging minor chords, whilst "Babylon Times" creates an arid soundscape of big-cat-bass growls over which DJ Collage can let loose his tribal chatter.
Encounters is an hour of heavy-going, bludgeoning and relentless. It starts in comparative lightness before questing further and deeper into a world of paranoia and political anger, finally letting up a touch with the shimmering Hammonds and backing vocals of "Can I Get A Witness" and the instrumental closer "Gamelan" which together act almost as a redemption of sorts. Ineffably cool and snarlingly righteous, it blows initially-impressive recent efforts by both Massive Attack and Primal Scream into the water simply by means of having something to say and a definite way to say it. Sofa Surfers' third album is a near-masterpiece of post-millennial tension.
Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
See the Light
US release date: 15 June 2004
UK release date: Available as import
by Tim O'Neil
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Is there a musical genre more wrongfully deprecated than trip-hop? These days, it seems as though trip-hop has become an automatic code word for hard-boiled suck among the music intelligentsia. It conjures up images of yuppies, and of expensive coffee being placed on expensive coffee tables next to unread Neruda anthologies and the keys to the Beamer. There's some Morcheeba playing softly on the stereo, or is it Lamb? I can't tell because someone in the next room is laughing wryly, making it difficult to hear the soft music.
This state of events is a far cry from Blue Lines or Pre-Millennial Tension or even Dummy. Remember when Massive Attack were the biggest group around? No? Can you remember a time when Tricky wasn't singing XTC numbers? (Nothing against XTC, but "Dear God" is a far cry from "Hell Is Just around the Corner.") You see, I remember a time when Tricky suffered from some weird nutritional disorder that made him secrete vertiginous black depression from his every pore. That was trip-hop -- dark music from the dankest, dubbiest corner of Hell. My favorite trip-hop album is probably the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Listen to that album late at might and tell me you don't feel the devil himself breathing down your neck.
(Of course, it would be irresponsible of me not to point out that I'm in the minority here. A lot of trip-hop purists cling to the early days of the genre, when the template hewed more closely to the hip-house hybrid of Soul II Soul. I can certainly see their point, but I also believe that Mezzanine is Massive Attack's best album. Trip-hop really took off for me when it swallowed the paranoid atmosphere of Jamaican dub along with the harshly sinister elements of drum 'n' bass -- it became primeval music from the forests of the id, what King Tubby would have produced if he had taken massive amounts of speed along with his ganja.)
The problems began when trip-hop met acid jazz. In a lot of ways, you could say the two genres tongue kissed each other to death. As soon as the slurred, muddy trip-hop beat met the sophisticated and urbane new-jazz sound, it was all over. Suddenly, trip-hop had to be polite. The blistering, nigh-Satanic fervor of Tricky was replaced by the earnest, melancholic stylings of Louise Rhodes. Nothing against Lamb -- I actually quite like Lamb -- but the ascent of the cosmopolitan was the death-knell of trip-hop as an anarchic force of evil in a staid musical world. Sure, Fear of Fours is a masterpiece, but sometimes you just want to hunt down your enemies and lock them in a closet with Tricky's unintelligible Angels with Dirty Faces on an endless loop throughout the claustrophobic darkness.
So the newest release from Vienna's own Sofa Surfers finds the venerable collective on the horns of a dilemma. The smooth, just slightly chilled dub of Kruder & Dorfmeister has redefined trip-hop in every way that counts, making the union between the jazzy and the dubby a fait accompli. But even though the Sofa Surfers are now signed to the Thievery Corporation's Eighteenth Street Lounge label -- and of all the many new-school trip-hop producers, the Thievery Corporation has most assiduously acted the Saint Peter to K&D's dub Messiah -- they still remember the days when trip-hop was a decidedly dark proposition.
See the Light is, however, a confusing release. Those who follow the more obscure undercurrents of worldwide music know the confusion that is inevitably caused when domestic releases do not jive exactly with foreign releases. It's a problem as old as the Beatles. The press kit claims that See the Light is a compilation of highlights off of their first three albums, cherry-picked by the Thievery Corporation with rare remixes and new collaborations. Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. This album features one track apiece (and one of them a remix, no less!) from their first two albums, Transit and Cargo, but features almost the entirety of their never-domestically-released third album Encounters -- all but three out of thirteen tracks. It's a curious package, to say the least: why not simply release Encounters in the US with the new and rare remixes as bonus tracks? It's an oddly conceived package.
But, packaging qualms aside, the music itself is very good. The sole representative track from their second album, "Long Bone", is a pleasingly dank dub cut that serves as a perfect introduction to their atmospherically dense sound. The selections from Encounters represent a plausible expansion of their signature sound -- less dense than the oblique Cargo, and definitely influenced by the avant-garde hip-hop of groups such as the Antipop Consortium and Prefuse 73. Tracks like "Twisted Tongue", featuring DJ Collage, offer the kind of abrasive, combatively jazzy sound you'd expect to hear if Jagz Kooner remixed Us3.
The most disappointing tracks on the disc are actually the remixes. The Richard Dorfmeister mix of "Sofa Rockers" is good, but if you've got a copy of The K&D Sessions (and I'm sure you do), then you already have this track. The Thievery Corporation mix is a severe letdown, tacked on at the end of the album like a vestigial flipper. Their lounge interpolations of K&D's trademark dubscapes are usually good but after listening to an album's worth of the Sofa Surfer's best material, the Thievery Corp. seems remarkably bloodless.
It's probably too late for trip-hop as a genre. Even Smith & Mighty, who practically wrote the book on the intersection between thrashing jungle and deep Jamaican bass, long ago turned away from the genre they defined with Bass Is Maternal in favor of the smooth nu-soul of Life Is.... A good album -- or compilation, whatever you want to call it -- by the Sofa Surfers is hardly going to undo the damage that has already been done. But a good album is still a good album, and this is undoubtedly a good album.
_ 7 June 2004
I-Wolf And Burdy Meet The Babylonians
(Klein Records/Rough Trade)
Premier projet solo de Wolfgang Schl”gl (I-Wolf), l'un des quatre larrons des Sofa Surfers, Soul Strata
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