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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Album Review - Sahara Surfers: Sonar Pilot

One of my favorite albums from 2010 was Sahara Surfers’ debut LP, Spacetrip on a Paper Plane. In my review for that record, which you can read for yourself here, I compared the Austrian band to a stoner rock version of Silversun Pickups due to their careful blending of heavy riffs and subtle sonic textures all layered together with vocalist Julia Überbacher’s sexy baritone. The dynamic was in fact so unique and intricate that to this day that album still maintains a place in my music listening rotation. So when the band released their latest album Sonar Pilot towards the end of last year, you can rest assured I was more than ready to re-shuffle my best of 2011 to make room for it right at the top. Why didn't it end up on my list? Read on.

The album begins strong and full of promise, as a fine crescendo of guitar and bass from Andreas Knapp and Hans-Peter Ganner respectively, combines with Michael Stengress’ drums to become a monstrous riff-filled instrumental. Being that the track is one of the better songs on the album and that it clocks in at almost four minutes in length, it almost seems like Sahara Surfers sold it short by simply labeling it as “Intro”. That said, it does flow right into “Underline”, a song which features a pummeling groove and the first taste of Julia’s vocals as she opens with this gem…“city in wait for fire, unless the waves keep moving.” The song is reminiscent of the remarkable ability the band showcased on their debut, to ebb and flow from the heavier bits to the subtle ones with graceful ease.

Of course you wouldn't expect anything graceful about a song called “Mass Crashing” and you’d be correct. The song opens with another juggernaut riff and plows straight ahead through multiple, monstrous grooves, a neck snapping breakdown and a really cool stop/start where Sahara Surfers just seem to be toying with us. “Fold Over” continues to showcase the band’s knack for groove, but shifts gears into a slower, funkier tempo as Überbacher croons over offbeat guitar and bass lines. This goes on for over half of the song’s runtime before the rest of the band unleashes the full power of their signature, fuzzed out heaviness, which is made all the more impressive due to that calculated buildup.

The title track from Sonar Pilot is its centerpiece as well as one if it’s better songs. Listen as Stengress shotguns his snare, Ganner’s bass rolls in, followed closely by Knapp’s guitar and then Julia’s vocals wander dreamily over the top of it all. Then just as Sahara Surfers collectively merge their instrumentation, they unleash another tidal wave of sonic energy. And when Überbacher sings “indulged in my favorite…flight of fancy”, you get the impression this is a woman poetically acknowledging her love for her craft.

“Ganjalf” (is that some sort of stoner Lord of the Rings reference?) finds the band gathering momentum as it opens with what is almost certainly the album's heaviest moment. But Sahara Surfers continue to showcase their mesmerizing ability to layer their songs with multiple acoustic landscapes as they easily transition into the song's playful bridge. This back and forth from heavy to whimsical and back again continues throughout the song until the gloves finally come off and the band buries you with a colossal breakdown…if you weren’t sold on Sahara Surfers to this point, you will be now.

“Aenor” opens with more funky fuzz over which Julia quips "behind the sun my skin burns…but all the rest still shivers." And the band continues this soulful jam for a good two minutes before they slug you with another sledgehammer riff and the chorus beckons "is the price too low, is the gift too high?" "Miles" keeps the funky groove alive, only now Sahara Surfers seem perfectly content to keep the rhythm smooth and low key, riding their wave of chill all the way to the song's ending. But it's the final track on Sonar Pilot where the band really reminds me of their stunning layers of sound that I fell in love with back in 2010. "The Gentleman Aside" blends bright guitars with jazzy drums and of course those glorious vocals. Try and sit still when Überbacher warns "if I would be a force of mother nature, I would bring the whole shit down" and the band lets loose one last time as if to remind us all that they can unleash the heavy whenever they feel like it.

Listen, as I said before, I was all set to shuffle things around and throw this album way up at the top of my "best of 2011" list. So what happened you ask…why didn't I do it? Well unlike Sahara Surfers' debut album, which was love at first listen for me, Sonar Pilot took time and multiple listens for me to truly appreciate it. This album is a classic "grower" in the sense that the more time you put in, the more enjoyment you're going to get out. This is a band that incorporates layer upon layer of instrumentation to achieve their signature sound. They don't beat you over the head with their heaviness, but instead come at you much more subtly and then overwhelm you with it when you least expect it. And it's these juxtapositions that add so much depth to Sahara Surfers, making them a one of kind listen. So forgive me for not originally including Sonar Pilot on my "best of" list. The fact is, this is no sophomore slump. Sahara Surfers are back and I recommend you check this album out…just be sure not to pass judgement after the first impression.

Track Listing:

01 Intro
02 Underline
03 Mass Crashing
04 Fold Over
05 Sonar Pilot
06 Ganjalf
07 Aenor
08 Miles
09 The Gentleman Aside

Band Members:
Julia Überbacher – Vocals
Andreas Knapp – Guitar
Hans-Peter Ganner – Bass
Michael Steingress - Drums

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