I wrote a fair bit back when The Observatory released their second album about why they are particularly special to me. Although the sound of their fifth album, Catacombs, is rather dark and intense, you could say that the experience of hearing this remarkable band live still filled my world with light the same way it did all those years ago.
A little background, for non-Singaporeans and Singaporeans who weren’t there, is that 1 + 1 Not Equals II was a free event on the Arts House lawn, featuring local bands Astreal, Lunarin, Electrico and Local Bar Boy and local dance troupes Ah Hock and Peng Yu and Moving Arts. The premise of the event was that while the bands played, the dancers would perform interpretive dances to the music. (Yes, I know it sounds like a recipe for awkward hilarity but it was free, so I went.)
Now that’s been explained, perhaps someone more knowledgeable about contemporary dance than I can explain how going on stage, slowly taking off one’s jeans, eating a takeaway meal from its styrofoam container, drinking from a plastic bottle, occasionally swinging one’s legs while eating, slowly putting one’s jeans back on, and leaving the stage, constitutes an interpretive “dance” to any music?
I must admit, one reason this aggrieved me was that it was done while my favourite local band Astreal was playing the best gig I’ve ever heard it do. For once you could hear Ginette’s vocals loud and clear over the mic instead of just snatches of them through the crashing guitars, and they did some new material I really enjoyed as well. It certainly seemed to me like music to which one could quite conceivably perform dance-like movements to.
I must also admit, if this had been done for Electrico’s performance instead of Astreal’s I’d have been fairly amused, given that the performer’s complete obliviousness to the music being played does rather capture my usual reaction to Electrico’s ho-hum music. But even then, I’d still feel it was rather taking the piss.
I arrived from Resfest too late to see the first band, Life Without Dreams. Subway Stars were up next. Here is the blurb describing Subway Stars:
“Drawing influences from Radiohead, Muse, Coldplay, Travis and Silverchair, The Subway Stars aims to instill a raw sense of emotion towards their listeners, instigating the fact that there is an escape from everyone’s sadness and despair.”
I think the blurb speaks for itself. And indeed, the performance did help Jacob find escape from his sadness and despair – by leaving the venue for a beer break. Let’s move on, shall we?
Next up, KLPHQ. In the online review I’ve read of the gig, and other comments people have made to me in conversation, everyone seems to be under the impression that KLPHQ “almost” stole the show from Furniture. Dude, when it comes to stealing shows KLPHQ were that gig’s Bonnie and Clyde. If you ask me, the show left the stage with KLPHQ, got smuggled across the Causeway and squirrelled away in a Swiss bank account.
But before I can try to describe what impressed me about KLPHQ, I need to first do a ranty prelude about what does not impress me in live post-rock.
I’m always wary of bands who descend into extended jams which go nowhere but simply rely on the usual quiet-loud dichotomies to elicit a response. It’s lazy and derivative and not particularly interesting to listen to unless you’re stoned, in which case the sound of a dripping tap might fascinate you equally. Frankly, rather than suffering through post-rock-by-numbers most fans of long instrumentals with hugely contrasting dynamics would find themselves much better off with some Mahler. But despite this, indie kids will still stand around blissing out to turgid 20-minute dronefests when they would never countenance the same sort of dreck from mainstream US college “jam bands” like Phish or DMB.
So (rant over, thanks for staying with me) the reason KLPHQ impressed me and kept me engaged, and I do realize this is all totally subjective, is that nothing ever felt aimless or over-indulgent about their performance, and they sounded distinctive. The thing about the whole quiet-loud thing is that there are so many kinds of quiet, and so many kinds of loud, and so many ways to get there and move on, so when I hear something which sounds totally lifted from a song by some famous post-rock band it irks me. Thankfully, this never happened with KLPHQ. They were tight without sounding rehearsed, unhurried without becoming tedious, and fucking searing in all the right places. Never a dull moment.
I admit I was tired and hungry by the time Furniture came on which may have affected my enjoyment of their set, but it was the third time I’d seen them live and my opinion of them just hasn’t improved. Feel free to disagree if you were at the gig and think otherwise, perhaps it’s just me?
When I returned to Singapore from London in 2003, I was so depressed that I lost all my “overseas excess” weight effortlessly within a few months. During these, probably some of the worst months of my life, one particular night still stands out as atypical – it was the night I visited the Esplanade for the first time, fell in love with the place, and realized that there was indeed something Singapore could offer me that England couldn’t. (Granted, it’s now two years later and I can’t actually say I’ve discovered a second thing, but let’s not go into that.)
The visit in question was to see Kreidler in the Recital Studio. A local band opened for them. I had no idea who they were, or what people thought of them. I just listened. And was blown away.
That local band was The Observatory, and what an introduction they were to a scene I knew nothing about. I don’t know how long they’d been together at that point or how many gigs they’d done before that one, but I think they were fairly newly formed and don’t think their first album had been released yet. I found out in time to come that they were, well, pretty famous.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps portentously, since that night the band (and the Esplanade) seem to have been present at a number of the rare moments in my life here where I am actually content to live in the moment, in Singapore. So due to that almost overdramatically sentimental part of my psyche which assigns symbolic meaning to certain experiences of mine, they have become rather special to me for reasons which go far beyond the music they play.
This is why I was very happy to attend Friday’s launch gig on Friday for their second album, back in the Recital Studio where I suppose you could say it all started for me.
I’d heard many of the songs already at previous gigs, but almost all stood up strongly to repeated listening. My Whole Life is probably my favourite album track, though I tend to prefer Sea Of Doubts live.
The only two I wasn’t keen on were Finch, which I have heard multiple times live and have hated every time, and Olives, which I’m undecided about. It’s odd, I really should like Olives a lot more than I do because it sounds so Sonic Youthy, but it’s just never worked for me the three times I’ve heard it live. I feel stupid saying this, but Leslie Low’s voice is almost too nice for the song’s discordant guitars, and it ends up detracting from them for me. It sounds a little better on the album, maybe because his voice is louder in the mix there, but I’m still not fond of it. Having said that, I do think it took balls to pick one of the most challenging songs on the album as first single, and I do actually hope it does well. Maybe it’ll grow on me.
As always, afternoon napping foiled my best-laid plans of getting to Baybeats in time for Serenaide, and I arrived only to hear the last 30 seconds of their last song.
The bands that followed – Zhen, The Marilyns and Kate Of Kale – were pretty dull and I started to long for my couch again, so I went to the Garlic Restaurant with emptysignifier in search of a strong pick-me-up.
Fortified and reeking (how awesome is the garlic ice-cream?), we then sallied forth for Death Of Cinema, which I enjoyed lots then and enjoy even more now that I’ve discovered they describe their sound as “post-cock”. Coincidentally, the same article reveals that they share my views on song-naming wankery:
Nick: I wouldn’t say we disregard genres. Rather, we’re very sensitive to the trappings of them, so you’re right about the stereotypes. For example, with the whole down-tempo and triphop thing, there’s just this very pretentious, pseudo-intellectual and extremely dated edge to it. Just look at the cover of any Winter Chill or Hed Kandi ‘chillout’ compilation, or the cover of Groove Armada’s Vertigo. Have you seen anything more dated or stuck?
The same thing is happening to post-rock too. Like what’s with 5-word smarty pants titles as ‘de rigeur’? The reason I mention these genres is that we ourselves are into this music and we can’t escape the influence anyway, so we learn to take what we can and make fun of it, and hopefully we end up less derivative.
For what it’s worth, as someone who’s spent a lot of my music-listening life hoping to sift the derivative from the influenced-but-innovative (and blogging incoherently about it), I don’t think Death Of Cinema sound derivative. Also, I want a “Post-Cock” T-shirt.
Between 8.30-9 we had a choice between watching Electrico and Lunarin. Several hundred people chose Electrico (who seem like nice people doing what they love but I’m not into their music) so I was glad there was plenty of space for Lunarin. I quite liked what I heard, but would like to hear an electric set to get a better feel of their sound.
I’m a bit at a loss for what to write about Concave Scream, except that they just seem to have hit on how to write songs that work as songs and work for their sound as a band. To me they sound melancholic yet uplifting, reminiscent yet timeless, and always larger than the sum of their influences. (God my music writing sucks.) The best gig I saw at Baybeats 2005. I left shortly after, because Copeland were boring me, and I wanted to end the night on a high note.
Given that we only had a wedding lunch to attend on Saturday, I’d originally thought we’d make it for the start of day 2 of Baybeats, but I’d forgotten this was Tamara and her family we were talking about, so great company and countless glasses of champagne got considerably in the way. It’s a special sort of joy leaving a wedding party knowing your dear friend is in wonderful hands. Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Pritchard!
My views of Surreal and Furniture haven’t changed since last year, so let’s leave it at that.
I Am David Sparkle was pleasant enough but didn’t post-rock my socks that much either. The problem well may be mine though, I think I’m the world’s most impatient quietLOUD type post-rock fan. I love walls of bonecrushing sound but get restless in the slow peaceful bits that build up to them. This is why my favourite local band is Astreal, they just skip the foreplay and go right to the orgasm, which then continues for at least five minutes.
Let it not be said that I’m biased against all emo, I actually liked Brandtson quite a lot. They had nice songs with strong melodic hooks, and enough variety of chords and song structures that it didn’t sound like the same nice song repeated 8 times. Also, they do a pretty mean Cry Me A River. Mad strobe lighting during the chorus was a fun dramatic flourish but I wish they’d put a bit more death metal in the guitars.
At this point I have to mention my main frustration of the night: the stitches in my right boob are freaking cramping my style.
In normal circumstances I’d have left at this point to see Ice T in Zouk, but I was worried about getting pushed around or elbowed in the crowds there. I’d also have liked to go to Subvert’s 2nd birthday, but having to restrain myself from my usual vigorous drum’n’bass dancing would have been too frustrating.
So I stayed at Baybeats for Poptart and Twilight Action Girl’s DJ sets instead, but even within indie pop lies hardship. Witness my measured jumping during the “In LOVE, in FEAR, in HATE, in TEARS” bit of Sit Down, my restrained air guitar during Bullet With Butterfly Wings, and my wimpy gesticulating to Sabotage. Okay, I cracked a little when they played Here Comes Your Man, scampered down to the front and broke into a weird sway-hop-kick dance, but in general it could truly be said that despite all my rage, I was still just a rat in a cage.
I arrived quite late from dinner and drinks with my former colleagues, so only saw Shamejoannshame and Nakedbreed.
The former was unremarkable instrumental post-rock which seemed to take overlong overdescriptive song-naming inspiration from A Silver Mount Zion. (Exhibit A: Shamejoannshame’s “I Heard You Singing A S Club 7 Song While You Were Super Wasted.” Exhibit B: A Silver Mount Zion’s “Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats Of Fire Are Falling From The Sky!”)
The latter was energetic pop-rock with catchy harmonies and occasional excursions into Joe Satriani guitar territory. Better than many similarly styled bands I’ve heard in Singapore – they deserve to do fairly well and probably will, given the accessibility of their sound.
The Attic at Mox is a thoroughly endearing venue, but I can’t come up with any trendy designspeaky reasons as to why. In fact, I have a feeling that what endears the place to me is its almost meticulous lack of trendy design. There are random lights from Mox, random rows of airplane seats along a wall, random stage at one end, random DJ booth on the other, bar with random selection of alcoholic beverages, and lots of randomly dressed indie types. In other words, it was the perfect place for RNDM.
Astreal’s set was marred by problems with their amps, which meant that some songs were played with only two out of three guitars. I still enjoyed it, but it meant less crashing guitar noise, which is never a good thing.
I had been looking forward to finally seeing the much-hyped Tiramisu, but ended up a little disappointed. Apart from the undeniable showmanship of their frontman, there was little I found distinctive or interesting about their songs. Sort of a mix between Built To Spill and Hefner, but without any of what I like about either band. I’d still watch them again, though. Rizman Putra’s eyeballs fascinate me.
After Tiramisu I suggested we take a break for dinner, whereupon Ida suggested we eat the surprise birthday cake she had brought me. :)
I didn’t manage to see many of the later bands on the schedule, for the unusual reason (unusual for me, anyway) that I got caught up socializing. Downstairs in Mox with my childhood fags, upstairs in the attic telling Tessa how much I miss the life she’s living now, here a random, there a random, everywhere a random.
We’d originally intended to leave at midnight for Grandmaster Flash at Zouk, but then Poptart started spinning and there was no way I was going to leave while Sonic Youth’s 100% was playing. As one song led to another, I decided that there was no point leaving somewhere where I was having such a great time for somewhere which almost inevitably enrages me.
Indie club nights aren’t any cooler than 80s nights; they’re all about jumping around haphazardly to songs which were staples of your youth, and screaming “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND I AM THE LIFE!” along with everyone else. Actual dancing is an afterthought, and actual good dancing is virtually impossible. Not that any of this is really relevant while you’re going apeshit to Idioteque. I had a blast.
The Observatory, complete with great view
The BayBeats festival was a fairly endearing example of the classic Singaporean maxim: If it’s free, they will come. The samfu-clad grandma seemed to have enjoyed The Observatory, but the 50something couple in one of the first few rows left at some point during Force Vomit.
Fleeting thoughts on the bands I saw/heard:
- Telebury: Quite pleasant. Like the child of The Shins and Coldplay if The Shins were British and Coldplay weren’t shit.
- The Observatory: This band has an odd tendency to be present at my rare “Actually, Singapore isn’t so bad!” moments, one of which was the first time I saw them, and the second of which was the sun setting on the bay as they sang their very pretty new song Sea Of Doubts. A class act.
- Surreal: The same And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead song for half an hour.
- Furniture: The same Mogwai song for half an hour, frequently employing the same chord progressions as in Aereogramme’s The Black Path.
- Force Vomit: Not really my thing. I like my punk less catchy and more abrasive. Less smiling guys with indie hair and black plastic specs, more bald sweaty guys in huge singlets bawling out rants against corporate oppression. You get my drift. (Please come to Singapore, Fugazi!) But I can still see why this band has such a loyal following here, and why Paul Zach and Chris Ho have championed them so much. They were pretty fun. I’d see them again.
- Whence He Came: The same bad emo song for half an hour.
[In the not-so-impossible likelihood that a Googling band member comes across these words and feels slighted, these are the (very brief, and admittedly flippant) impressions I formed while listening to half-hour-long sets. I realize your albums may be quite different. If you feel I’ve misrepresented your musical vision, feel free to disagree. For what it’s worth, I actually love Trail Of Dead and Mogwai, although I can’t say I’m much of an emo fan. Also, if I ever give any gigs you will be fully entitled to write “The same complete silence for half an hour” in your review, because I’d chicken out before even going on stage. All power to you, and I hope you had a good time at Baybeats.]
Well, whaddya know? After writing the previous post, I resigned myself to a quiet Saturday night in. No big deal. I’d divide my time between good movies on HBO and the ton of work I have for next week. Then Ida called, the first time we’d talked for a year (I was there, she was here, we’re both lousy at keeping in touch). In the midst of catch-up conversation she asked if, by any chance, I’d be interested in going to see some German group at the Esplanade tonight. She read about them in the papers and it sounded interesting. WAHOO!
We were both somewhat discouraged by the opening guy. He was hard to describe. He reminded me of the time I was at a David Grubbs gig and couldn’t figure out whether a particular “song” had begun, ended, or gone horribly wrong, except that compared to this guy David Grubbs’s song was a catchy pop gem. We decided it wasn’t our thang and popped out for a drink.
Observatory was next. I haven’t been around for four years and know nothing about the local music scene, but the quality of their performance suggests it’ll be well worth exploring. Again, they’re hard to describe, and in saying some songs were kind of like Air remixed by Thievery Corporation with immensely pleasant male vocals sort of like Calexico and jazzy flourishes on the keyboard, and others were like REM at their best with the occasional harmonica and journeys into shoegazy guitar, I’m not doing the band justice at all. Truly impressive, and a huge incentive for this prodigal daughter to find out more about what her own people are doing rather than buying expensive US indie imports all the time.
Kreidler continued my long-running streak of never being disappointed by anything German. (I clarify: obviously I wasn’t alive during the World Wars.) Interesting sounds that evolved rather than doof!doof!doof!ing on for ages the way some electronica does, endearing crowd manner, and although I was too comfy sprawling on the floor for most of the gig to dance, it certainly kept me bobbing my head and tapping my toes.
But as good as all the acts were, the star of the gig, for me, was the venue. It’s not going to be very difficult to convince me to attend anything at the Esplanade Studios in future, because I have never heard such amazing sound in a gig in all my born days. Crystal clear, wonderfully-balanced, loud enough to dominate the room and send reverberations through the floor, yet not so loud that conversations had to be screamed. A floor so clean you could sprawl on it without having to coat yourself in spilled booze or cigarette ash. Recent letters to the papers here in Singapore have asked if the building of such an expensive concert venue was really worthwhile, and whether it actually makes the arts accessible to the masses or only caters to a certain wealthy elite. I paid $21 (about 8 pounds) for a great gig, with the best sound I’ve ever heard, in beautiful surroundings, and the price even included a drink. All I can say is that I’m an incredibly satisfied customer (mad props to the Government!), I think it really is a world-class venue we should all be proud of, and I’m going to be throwing my money at it fairly regularly from now on.