For the first time since Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, and specifically that album’s opening track “Angel”, I can feel the dread. It’s that feeling that something huge and probably catastrophic is about to happen, those moments of building tension before the impending explosion, an explosion that “Angel” embodied in a swirl of electric guitars and thick rhythmic layering. “White Noise”, the leadoff track on Sofa Surfers’ eponymous fourth album, finds the sort of aura that the first couple minutes of “Angel” achieved, and lengthens it, ultimately filling the entire five-and-a-half minute track with it. The tempo is just a little too slow, the atmosphere created by the dueling guitars a little too creepy, and the R&B-ish vocal turns of vocalist/dancer Mani Obeya a little too unpredictable for anything in the song to get labeled as “catchy.” Rather, it’s engrossing, inviting you into a world that dares you to care enough to hope for resolution, only to string you along for its entire length and drop you off without any such thing.
In other words, it’s wonderful.
The rest of Sofa Surfers doesn’t exactly live up to such a strong start, but not much could. What the Viennese quartet-plus-one (Obeya, technically, isn’t a member of the band, though his vocals adorn every track on Sofa Surfers) does deliver is an album that ditches the cold, largely electronic, dubby leanings of their past and embraces a much warmer sound: still bass-heavy, but more, for lack of a better term, band-like. It’s a chill-out album as played by a band rather than created by a producer, and it’s doubly fascinating for it.
Back to the tension of “White Noise” for a second. While the rest of the album may not quite live up to it, the song does hint at many of the characteristics that carry through the remainder. For one, there’s the tension. This is not an album based in catharsis, this is an album that carries with it the distant scent of possible climactic release. The second track “Say Something” is perhaps the most adept at carrying this mood through its length, often punching some distortion into its muted guitars to hint at the idea that it could blow the roof off at any time. And at the end, it almost does, except for the fact that when the distortion kicks in, it’s unsatisfying and frustrating in the best of ways, giving listeners what they’ve been expecting for the entire song but still sounding as though it’s leading to something bigger. And then it ends.
Even the words hint toward a possibly foreboding but untold future—in the album’s most uptempo track, the almost-rollicking, bass-heavy “Notes of a Prodigal”, Obeya sings, “Watch him dancing, watch him singing / Watch him shaking his ass on the deck / Watch as his smile is slowly widening / And there’s a rope around his neck.” It’s a snippet indicative of the rest of the album, giving us the prologue to the disaster to come, but never laying out its actual happening. “Every house has its ghosts / Which one bothers you the most?,” Obeya asks in “Good Day to Die”, setting the mood once again in an album full of ghosts. He doesn’t bother to patronize his listeners with a happy ending, either, as he ends the album repeating, “I can’t breathe for the smell of fear,” before ultimately telling us, “You can never go back.” It’s not happy, but it’s not explosive, or angry, or desperate, either—it’s simply an album-length warning sign, foreshadowing events that we will never see come to fruition.
Given that Sofa Surfers is a story without an ending, it’s potentially frustrating for its lack of resolution. Still, that’s just the attribute that’s bound to attract much of the band’s intended audience for this album—it’s an album that illuminates the dark side of a life without any easy answers. Oh, and it does that with pensive, slowly-progressing, straight-up style. You can’t ask for much more.
Sofa Surfers - Can I Get a Witness