Saturday, December 6, 2008

RYOJI IKEDA: C4I + datamatics [ver. 1.0]
15 September 2007
Esplanade Theatre Studio

Published in 
Junk (November 2007)

Director's cut by Mark Wong

Amongst sound artists like Pan Sonic and Carsten Nicolai, who came to prominence in the mid to late nineties and continue to focus on the production of austere minimal electronics, it is arguably Ryoji Ikeda who has, since 1995, worked most towards integrating sound and sight (and even the sense of touch, when sonic frequencies edge towards polar regions) creating numerous art installations, video productions, dance performances and other multisensory projects.

Ryoji’s two videos, C4I and Datamatics, presented in the Esplanade Theatre Studio, are studies in the production of meaning(s) in data or information flow. The first, C4I, attempts to use “data” as both raw material and theme by breaking down images and/or abstracting them into their constituent forms. Thus worms of DNA code swim amidst sine waves and pink noise while laser scanners on radar images beep at confluences of rhythmic meaning.

The title, C4I, which stands for Command, Control, Computers, Communications and Intelligence, hints at the politics that lies at the heart of the video. A roll of statistics announcing environmental disaster, resource catastrophe and political conspiracy unfurls, ever-speeding and pushing us towards a precipice of information overload while the elucidating/obscurantist power of the media realises a multiplier effect on the clarity/chaos of global affairs. Long shots of nature follow, ostensibly to offer respite and calm, accompanied somewhat uncomfortably by simplistic slogans which can only render nuggets of uneasy hope given how Ryoji has already worked to shake our faith in the stability of data signs.

The second video Datamatics [ver. 1.0] is more abstracted and pared down, with pixels of information traversing the dimensions: lonely dots on a flat screen shift positions to tease our perceptions, transforming into cragged 3D landscapes that Peter Saville would be proud of. Even as datamatics achieves a stark beauty in the way its skinned down black and white forms shimmer in perfect communion with the shards of shorted static (thus feeling a more coherent synchronicity of sound and sight than C4I), it still never reaches the synaesthetic ecstasy achieved by fellow Raster-Noton artists Carsten Nicolai, Kangding Ray and Nibo in a concert presented as part of the (first) Singapore Biennale a year ago. That concert lay grandiose themes aside in favour of an intense aesthetic feeling and all three musicians, for the most part, kept audiences locked to their respective grooves.

If video killed the radio star, digital video may just be causing a choke at the frontiers of much sonic art today. The convoluted visuals and grandstanding text in Ryoji’s C4I become complicit in the information overload and data confusion exponentially generated in our digital age. This seems quite apart from what minimal electronics promised in the first place: a stripping down of excess to the building blocks of existence, a filtering down to the skins of experience.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I'm Not Kylie Minogue: An Acoustic Gig
The Substation Garden
5 Oct0ber 2002

Patrick Chng (The Oddfellows)
Yee Chang Kang (The Ordinary People)
Leslie Low (Humpback Oak)
Jon Chan & Sham (Plainsunset)

Do you remember the Garden? We sat on stone, dirt and roots listening to our sonic youth in awkwardness exuberance hoping for a breeze to fan our desires. When it rained, we got wet. And at acoustic gigs like this, the motorruptions of a city abuzz, dense ubiety.

Gig flyer (left); high flyer (right)

And a halo surrounds you, Patrick Chng

Pre-Timbre: Sham, Jon Chan and a creeping arborescence

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lush Life (Groove Note; GRV1011-2; 2001)
Published in BigO No. 198 (June 2002)

By Mark Wong

Somehow, my thoughts of Jacintha are always intrinsically tied with memories of her dressed up as an Indian princess and dancing around a coconut tree with Dick Lee.

Bah Mustapha! Maybe I'll never be able to wipe that out of my memory, but Jacintha's third jazz album for Groove Note (after Here's To Ben and Autumn Leaves: The Songs Of Johnny Mercer) does transport me into an alternate realm where men are dressed in neatly pressed suits, women in slinky, clingy dresses swirling sweet wine, and Jacintha is up there on a red-carpeted platform, with jazz ensemble behind her.

Much praise has been lavished on Bill Cunliffe's production and crisp arrangement work--all very much deserving, I assure you. He knows when to practise restrain, like on the softly swinging "Black Coffee", and when to heighten the drama of a song like "The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams", when he brings in Frank Marocco on a lonesome accordian solo, followed by a climactic drum march with string ensemble.

An obvious reference point for this album would be Jacintha's contemporary Diana Krall. While I have enjoyed some of Krall's earlier work, I find that she's lost some of her former piquancy; The Look Of Love seems to find Krall taking her international fame for granted and belting out quite lifeless tunes.

Jacintha, however, demonstrates a voice of silk, full of breathy passion and quiet intimacy. She's got some attitude going on George and Ira Gershwin's "Summertime", and tames and conquers Billy Strayhorn's difficult "Lush Life" with abundant grace. When she finally reaches the last track with a poignant melancholy rendition of "Smile", her elliptical phrasing absolutely breaks hearts.

The only problem now is that once I've started listening to this disc, I have to put it on repeat mode--once the music stops the images of coconut trees return to haunt me. Oh, Jacintha! (8)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Banned in Da Singapura
Album Launch
Coco Carib (Clarke Quay)
15 January 2000
An edited version was published in BigO No. 171 (March 2000)

By Mark Wong

It's been a while since Localpalooza 2 (and, of course the ensuing hullabalooza), so I was particularly eager to see the Boredphucks live again. In the months following their debut appearance at the police station, the Phucks have been slapped with NYC (National Youth Council) and P10 (Perfect 10 aka 98.7FM) bans, had their integrity questioned, changed their names and granted telling interviews with this magazine. Along the way, they also decided to release their first album--Banned in Da Singapura--and plan a launch party for it. Yes, it was time once again to listen to the music.

And so I turned up at Coco Carib among some 350 others--a comfortable squeeze. Foreplay came in the form of covers by opening punk band Rioting James (their attempt at A-ha's "Take on Me" was anarchy alchemy) as well as a dance item by the Fluff Girls (with their hot tubes). But for all the novelty, it wasn't what the crowd was there for. It was at about 9.30pm when Sig Lendonn, J-Bob and Sir Richard Tu Lan strutted on stage that the show really began.

They started well. Songs like "Boredphuckin", "Eating Air" and "Ballad of Tabitha" egged the crowd on to some happy moshing. Someone even lost a shoe, in the merry melee, that was being tossed around in the air.

There were some other comic moments, like during "Battle Over Endor", when the audience were treated to the live spectacle of J-Bob doing his death metal parody. In guttural growlings, his ad-libs of "Satan is my friend" were about as scary as Barney and as humorous as the same dinosaur being brutally mutilated.

Despite what they've said about themselves, the Phucks are a musically tight three-piece. Lendonn wails so hedonistically and still nails his solos with authority while J-Bob and Richard provide steady backing.

"Baby When You're Gone" was a high point in the gig. A classic homage to over-the-top rock ballads ala Bon Jovi, the Phucks even brought out two lovely ladies for backing vocals during the heart-wrenching chorus! And who could forget J-Bob's rock star pose: perspiring, on his knees with bass guitar flamboyantly held erect as he plucked off the simplest of single notes.

Regrettably for the Boredphucks, something was missing that night. Lendonn was a subdued figure and for all of J-Bob's (self-confessed) "monkey" dancing, the energy was wanting. More performer-audience interaction would have been good (though we did laugh when Lendonn told us to "beat the shit" out of the guy who "stunned" J-Bob's bass). The audience wanted--expected--more. Hell, it was the Boredphucks, right?

And therein lay the problem. On the plus side, these lads have amassed a smoking reputation for giving a good time, and people are going to go to their shows expecting that. The downside is the baggage of hype they're going to drag around from now on. By the last three songs before the encore--the impressive lineup of "Rock With Ya", "Zoe Tay" and "Phuck Da Skool"--even the moshing had stopped. The crowd, with "feed me" looks in their eyes, suggested an answer, chanting a certain naughty hokien phrase right after the band had done "Zoe Tay".

So after Lendonn's quick taunt after "Phuck Da Skool"--"Thank you goodnight!"--and the subsequent booing, when the lights turned communist red and Chinese gongs sounded out from nowhere, ecstasy gripped the fans. "The last time we were at the police station, they said we cannot use vulgarities anymore... so you'll have to sing this for us." Yes, Lendonn became mummy's boy--and J-Bob, with female undergarment over head, took over the vocals on the as-prurient-as-we-wanna-be "Ai Sio Kan Mai". It's amazing when you think about how this hokien number has emerged as the quintessential Singaporean rock anthem--a killer live. Rioting James got back on stage to join the romp, its members took turns at the climactic refrain and everybody in the room took part in a last-gasp effort to end the night on a high.

So was it high enough? A tinge of disappointment diffused quickly when the band finally left the stage. Yes, it may seem a little unfair to expect so much from just one band but hey, it wouldn't be the case if they weren't the Boredphucks.
Interview with MY PRECIOUS
Published in Aging Youth #23 (April 2006)

By Mark Wong

The guitarist’s gone bodysurfing, the rhythm section is frantic and the crowd’s slam dancing like it’s 1979. Somewhere in the eye of the storm, two waifish vocalists are conducting a Dionysian rite, floatin’ like a butterfly and singin’ like Beelzebub. Make no mistake: a My Precious gig is almost always a near-religious experience, an ecstatic union of sweaty body and delirious soul, all to a rapturous groove the band calls “no-core” as if hardcore’s gone no-wave for our musickal salvation. My Precious talks to Aging Youth about their hardcore life.

Could you please introduce each band member with ages and occupation, etc?

Dyn, 29, guitarist, Practising Artist pursuing a Masters Degree in Fine Arts
Hairil, 27, drummer, Shift Manager
Kyn, 27, vocals, Art student pursuing a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts
Rina, 26, vocals, Assistant Manager
Zool, 24, bassist, Immigration Officer

What’re you guys busy with these days?

Well, if it’s not with studies, it’s got to be our jobs. We’re also working on new material for a second album and hopefully more tours in the near future! We’re also busy with plans to bring two Japanese bands and an Australian band to Singapore for a show in March and June respectively.

Why did you choose to release two split EPs after your self-titled debut album, rather than release a second album?

It wasn’t so much of a choice but rather an opportunity that came with such great timing. Both split EPs were released to serve as a soft introduction of our band to the two countries we toured in. Being on split releases with Gauge Means Nothing (Japan) and Steve Towson and The Conscripts (Australia) was more than just any ordinary splits; it was something that sealed our friendship. We do not know exactly how these things happened. Often, we find ourselves making plans but we do not always know what opportunity lies around the corner.

It’s been a year since you guys were in Japan! And then Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia… Tell us what they were like.

We have been so blessed to have earned so many friends and so many supporters who truly enjoy the experience of our music, our live performances as well as our friendship. It has been truly, truly wonderful. Often we find it hard to just sum the entire experience up in a mere paragraph or two. Honestly, having been on a tour has helped us mature as a band. It has been a rock and roll dream come true! It has really taught us the nitty-gritty of the music business.

Firstly, we have to make it known that it wasn’t just all fun and games. We had to work to make it work. Many people had this impression that we had it all handed to us on a silver platter. We learnt a lot about communication, coordination, financing, fund raising, promoting etc. Going on tour was just like any other project. You needed planning and a whole lot of work! There were so many things to consider and account for… from coordinating people’s leave from work, air tickets, accommodation, transport, budget, weather, luggage, diets, etc. It wasn’t just about you anymore. It was about taking care of a group of people.

You often had to endure long drives (a minimum of 8 hours and the most gruelling of 16 hours) in uncomfortable and usually cramped conditions. We had to pile into cars/vans that also carried our personal luggage, instruments, gear and merchandise! Japan taught us the extremities of playing nightly shows. Every morning, we’d set off early and drive for hours to the next city, reaching it just in time for sound-check just before performing. They taught us humility and respect for every band on the bill. In every gig we played at in Japan, nobody ever loiters outside the venue while a band plays. Out of respect, they attend and watch every band on the bill. Australia taught us that bands carried their own gear to every venue they play at. The full gear; drum kit, guitar and bass amps, stack amps, microphones, cables and sometimes their own PA system. We Singapore kids have it easy; we expect the organisers to fork out their own money to cover venue as well as equipment expenses! (And in some cases, bands expect the organisers to pay them for performing! We hardly even know if they can cover their own expenses.)

While Japan prepared us, Australia rewarded us. We had the honour of receiving airplay as well as being interviewed on several Australian radios the entire time we were on tour. We graced several pages of their local street press as well as music magazines. We had people requesting our autographs! Now, THAT was weird!

All in all, it was truly out of this world. We love performing and we truly appreciate our audience be it in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong – or anywhere else! It was an experience worth earning. It is an adrenaline of sorts; playing to different audiences; people dancing, screaming and singing along, going on the road every day to the next town for the next show, waking up each day knowing you got another show! The best thing we got out of touring as a band, were the friendships and bonds that were created. No matter what had happened during or after the tour, we would always collectively have that experience in our hearts. We hope that every serious band in Singapore would consider going on tour. If we can do it, so can you!

How were these tours organised? How did you finance them?

It was not easy but we often had to coordinate with the tour promoter/organiser through countless emails or international phone calls. It will usually start with a framework of dates and venues which we would have to then coordinate on our side. We had to do fundraising in order to finance our tours. We make and sell or own merchandise; t-shirts, stickers, buttons or patches. Producing the split EPs also helped raised funds for the tours and it also helped promote the tours. In some cases, the tour promoters might organise a benefit or fund raising show in the own country prior to the tour. We also use mostly our own savings to help finance certain areas of the tour.

How are the audiences different in the different countries?

Because of certain differences in our culture as well as music preferences, people will naturally react differently. Some danced more than others, some react passionately, some prefer to stand and watch while some like to scream their heads off. We have been really fortunate to have our audience truly appreciate our music wherever we went. The Japanese were awesome. They were spontaneous and yabai (crazy). Till then, we never saw anyone dance the way they danced to our music!

What’re the differences between the hardcore scenes overseas and in Singapore?

Not much different, really. Same old, same old. In some places, people are more into the lifestyle, people are more honest, people are more passionate and of course you have the poseurs, fakes, scene politicians and whatever else you call them. It’s the same everywhere.

What does DIY mean to you guys?

Do It Yourself. That’s all it ever meant.

What does no-core really mean?

It was born out of pure jest; a reaction to all the other something-cores we were being called, some of which were sometimes questionable. We wanted to create a platform for our own brand of music which was a mish-mash of many different influences with a tinge of fun. We just wanted people to enjoy our music and performances.

April 2005 saw founder-member Ronny leave the band, replaced by Hairil. Why did he leave and how has this affected the band?

Ronny left due to personal reasons he had to commit to. His departure from the band has definitely marked a significant change of style to the band’s sound. Often people unfairly judge the new drummer’s “need to fill in the shoes of the ex-drummer”. Not true. Two different people. Two different phases. Two different styles. Two different sizes. No filling of nobody’s shoes. We simply bought new shoes.

As much as My Precious is a collective effort, it is difficult not to regard Rina’s and Kyn’s vocals as being the very distinctive core to the band’s sound. Would the band be able to carry on without them?

You think? Hehehe. Thank you for the compliments though...

Who is Tini and what is her role in the band?

Tini is a dear friend of ours who has been supporting the band right from the start. She is significantly the silent member in the band. She writes awesome poetry and lyrics which have been used for several of our songs. She is also our roadie cum merchandise person. She helps us tend our merchandise table whenever we perform.

You guys are all pretty young. But I’m sure you’ve heard about hardcore gigs in the late eighties and nineties, which ran into problems with the police, what with occasional fights breaking out, etc. What are your views on this and what is the state of the Lion City Hardcore scene today?

Let bygones be bygones. We learn and we adapt. Honestly, it’s a whole lot more fun going to gigs and shows and do nothing more than just having fun, enjoying the music, meeting up with friends and checking out new merchandise.

Does hardcore music still have a bad reputation amongst mainstream audiences today? Is it difficult to organise gigs because of this, particularly in places like Community Centres, etc?

Bad reputation is created when silly people decide to do silly things and put other people at risk. Some people are too selfish and ignorant they forget to realise the amount of effort, time and money put into organising a gig especially in this day and time. Erm, we shall answer your first part of this question with a question (perhaps many more).

Why do we have to bother about what the mainstream audience think of hardcore music again? They have mainstream music they can shalala to on the local radio and at local TV events and heavily sponsored and endorsed roadshows which seem much “cooler” than our underground shows. Why bother about hardcore/punk/metal/any other underground bands which for several years now, have represented the Lion City Music scene by touring and releasing albums and split EPs overseas? Why do they give a damn about a group of passionate people and artists who have time and again invested their own time and money into something they love? Why bother about “noise-producing” bands that have put this tiny little red dot on the map!

A lot of other bands have gone on tours or performed overseas – Meltg Snow (USA), Minus (Malaysia, Japan), My Squared Circle (Malaysia, Thailand), Secret Seven (Indonesia), Under Attack (Indonesia), Subtle Revenge (Indonesia), Impiety (All over the world) just to name a few…. There are many more and many more to come.

Local music has increasingly been given more media coverage in the past four to five years, but hardcore music hardly garners a blip on the mainstream media’s radar. What are your views on this? What is hardcore’s place in Singapore music today?

Refer to the previous answer. PLUS… define the term local music . Apparently, the “local music” that has been mostly receiving media coverage is what some of us call radio friendly types. Hence, more acceptable? Not like there’s anything wrong with radio friendly type music. Honestly, to each his or her own. We truly should respect every artist and musician regardless of race, culture or genre. However, the local media has time and again painted this picture whereby local music is defined only by either indie bands, Chinese rock bands or pop bands, etc. All the other bands that exist have been doomed into the shaded region of the local music scene.

In the case of Singapore underground music, well, we guess it is a touchy issue. It’s a two way thing we suppose. One could assume that the underground music has banded together to truly protect the ethical nature of a true underground spirit. Or the local media simply can’t seem to find anything dangerous or wild antics happening in the underground scene to impeach the kids so as to feed the tabloid mongers. In other words, by their standards, as hardcore punks and metalheads, we’re boring!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

We, The Divers and the Ancient Mariner (self-released EP; 2005)
Published in Aging Youth # 22 (February 2006)

By Mark Wong

When post-rock signalled a shift in focus to texture from melody, the cinematic prospects of music were brought to the forefront in a way not seen since, perhaps, seventies prog-rock--not that the music became more visual; rather, we found that these sounds stimulated an as-yet unnamed sense--a sense of atmosphere, if you will. And so out rolled Sigur Rós, whose ethereality evoked fjords and glacial shifts, while Godspeed! You Black Emperor were a Wagnerian march through apocalyptic desert drylands.

In that sense, then, We, The Divers continue in this (environmental) tradition, recording music that is unmistakeably sub-aquatic, making the air around you grow dense and heavy, like someone increasing the pressure in your room/head. Space-time perceptions morph just as minimal guitar licks or synth notes bend and warp. There is a constant sense of movement as the extensive use of delay effects call up the motion of recurrent waves.

We, The Divers and the Ancient Mariner is five tracks or forty minutes of deep sound exploration where vast oceans are summoned in exploratory passages that evoke the ghost of electric Miles or the ambient blanket cast by electro-acoustic figures like Oren Ambarchi. On the opening track "The Horizon Slipped", the listener is literally pushed off the edge and right into the deep end of one of the Divers’ murkier compositions. Heavily processed samples sustain the feeling of strangeness and mystery. "For a While There, It was Warm and Nice" is like a lazy stretch at the beach with a languid bass line. It is that lyrical quality and a 4:21 running time that makes it the closest thing to a single the Divers will likely produce. Elsewhere, the dissonant "Drift" finds shimmery sine tones and arpeggios navigating a Merznoise loop.

There are times when the loose--some would say lack of--structures are going to alienate some people. The discursive drift of the sixteen-minute "Untitled 13" has a feel of improvisation and affects a temporal suspension on the listener the way a band like Deathprod does. Above all, this is music that rewards patience and an open mind. All one needs to do is, if I may overkill the metaphor, to get one’s feet wet and give the music of We, The Divers that first try.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Disembowelling Brecht (Aporia;
Aporia05; 2001)
Being; in the Light of Convergence (Aporia;
Aporia06; 2001)
Published in BigO No. 196 (April 2002)

By Mark Wong

If you'd always thought Kelvin Tan to be too much of a folk junkie to appreciate or even try his music, you'd be in for a rude shock when you listen to Disembowelling Brecht.

Stubborn as ever and refusing classification, Tan churns out a dastardly eclectic album of expansive styles, moving from paradigm-shifting drill-n-bass to Café del Mar chill-out moods, from oriental guitar pyrotechnics to murky industrial grind, from jazzy experiments to... I could go on and on.

My friends, yes, Tan has embraced electronica. Kelvin Tan has turned well, erm, "hip".

As soon as the first electronica beats of "Noir" hit you from the speakers, and the jazzy guitar sweeps your mind into a serene lull, you know you're in different territory from Tan's first two albums. A track later, and you're in a "Calm Nocturne", where strange Mysterons lurk in every nook and cranny. Then, pry into "Ives' Dream", a hazy place where evil elves wreak havoc with psycho guitars.

Brecht is an amazingly exhilarating journey: Tan has composed a magnificent score of grooves and textures that seem to be influenced by everything from the Clint Mansell-composed/Kronos Quartet-executed soundtrack to Requiem For a Dream, to Jimi Hendrix, to the extensive work of avant garde genius/madman John Zorn.

While Brecht could so easily have suffered from self-indulgent wankery, Tan admirably keeps the album well-focused. In fact, having been written as a soundtrack-of-sorts to the play Kundabuffer (produced by multidisciplinary arts group Aporia Society), Brecht follows the lines already drawn in the play and proves to be, arguably, Tan's most coherent concept work to date. In a sense, in being held down within the confines of the play and its themes, Tan is prevented from broaching too many topics, something that the heavy-going The Bluest Silence and Alone, Descending... Sisyphus were sometimes guilty of.

And yes, Tan may be "held down", but he is by no means "restrained". In Brecht, he proves that limitation is stimulation.

Where in Silence and Sisyphus, Tan seemed to be buried so deep under the burdens of insight, struggling to uphold a certain dignity as the rubble of a morally dilapidated world crumbled all around him, he has now managed to lift himself above the mess and no longer allows himself to be hurt. More than ever, a sense of hearty cynicism guides Tan as he laughs off the absurdity of the hypocrisy and pride that consumes Singaporeans.

Brecht is like Tan like never before. He may have a sober message, but he never forgets to have fun. That is important; it makes for a more refreshing, digestible album to convey the message. The Aporia play explains the kundabuffer as the part of the brain that refuses to correct itself because of pride. Tan joins in the satire on elitist sections of society with the vigourous "Selfish Altruist", a hilarious burlesque Rabelaisian romp on self-righteous journalists: "Hey! How does it feel to be ugly?/Hey! How does it feel to be sad?/When you've got nothing except your newspaper column/And your photo in which you look so sad/Boo hoo!"

And then the clincher-of-a-chorus: "Oh you're a selfish altruist/Oh you're a joke/Oh you're a selfish altruist/Now it's time for your ass to get poked".

"Jezebel's Last Fling" does the same: "Miss First Class Honours/Give up drama/Go create a scene around your own pain".

And while the cynicism, the sarcasm and the wit gives Brecht lots of lyrical bite, Tan's music has never sounded more exciting: "Collapsing Dictims" sounds like what Hendrix might have written were he born in China; "In Search of a Turn" has the finesse of an Amon Tobin or Spring Heel Jack; the simple, calming "Cadence" might have been plucked out from Marc Ribot's Saints. The Zorn-like vision and ambition is astounding!

The importance of Brecht in local music cannot be overemphasised--Tan's creativity, experimentalism and, most of all, his love of music simply radiates throughout the album like a lone lightbulb in a windowless room. Such a pity that few people will probably ever experience it. (9.5)

Released within months of Brecht, Being; in the Light of Convergence, as Tan puts it, is the result of his being "struck by the electronic bug". But if you're expecting Brecht Part II, think again.

After Brecht, Being seems like one big come down, and it is. In his press release, Tan commented about Sept 11: "It was truly an experience; watching life shape your Art before your eyes." After the exhilaration of Brecht, Being is a drastically pared-down album, one tempered by tragedy.

Softer and mellower, it forgoes Brecht's mellee of instrumental experiments and reverts to more "proper" song structures; two tracks, "Ennui" and "Infinity; Her Eyes", are in fact played completely on acoustic guitar, a return somewhat to Tan's first two albums.

Where the music in Brecht was often the main attraction, an entity in itself that was perhaps better experienced viscerally and not hampered by the distraction of lyrics, the music in Being is much sidelined to invariable synth-moods that attempt to support the lyrics. Contemplative to the extent of meditation--even incantation--the lyrics in Being are some of Tan's most intense, frequently invoking different spirits while the background music oms like a mantra.

Tan's fifth album begins with "110901", the partly doleful, partly ominous synthboard instrumental. Three tracks later, in "The End of Thinking", Tan describes the aftershock of the tragedy; you can imagine him sitting home glued to the news on TV, as he pens down these lyrics: "The images horrify/They struck me with horror/Now my feel have lost the ground/It used to stand upon".

But in a crisis like Sept 11, the greatest tragedy is not just the loss of human lives, but that of rationality and humanity. "If the senselessness unwinds/And tortures with violence/Then we have to realise/It's the end of thinking". Tan struggles as he rigorously keeps to the straight and narrow, declaring wearily, at the end, "And it's taken me this time/To strengthen my resisting/To let the spirit take control/To destroy the end of thinking".

The twin themes of death and art appear constantly in Being. He enters the tortured minds of abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, one-time VU sex kitten Nico and a neighbour who committed suicide.

His attempts to map out Rothko and Pollock's minds are particularly intriguing. In "Hear the Colours (For Jackson Pollock)", another attempt at the stream-of-consciousness-type spoken work piece (also seen in Brecht's "Beast"), Tan etches some beautiful poetry: "Drops that cover silences/Precision of weary hands/Mirror the harbinger's crime/What have I to offer/Except the scattered thought/Of splayed colours to the mangled world/Forms that don't believe in".

As one of Being's most outstanding tracks, the bebop bassline and avant groove synth lines fully complement "Pollock", one who was "haunted" by Bird and Diz and whose drip paintings were described as "pictorial jazz".

In "Mark Rothko Forsees His Intimacy", Tan portrays Rothko at work, pouring his pain into his art. "Let my colours fly/Let them elevate/'Cause I can't get out of here anymore/Let my brushes turn/Let it turn in tears till they fall/Into a palette of pain". Rothko, an alcoholic, was also troubled by emphysema, heart disease and a separation from his wife. He committed suicide in 1970 at age 67.

Tan tries to fulfill the artist's role of filling up the voids in society. In "Ennui", he observes that "the city reeks her strange and shallow voice tonight" and finds that he is "lost within the spirit of the void". And yet once again he fights on. "Give me freedom in the midst of this mundaneness/To live the spirit of the emptiness".

It is with the ushering in of this new, post-Sept 11 era that there is a greater need for vigilance from all. In "Time of Renewal", Tan knows that it is now more important than ever to live according to your conscience and ideals. "Let me live in the light/Or don't let me live at all/I can't move far beyond this dictum".

While its lyrics touch like never before, Being suffers from some mundane music. The music in tracks like "110901", "24th Storey Eulogy" and "Time of Renewal" is too passive, unassertive and unexciting. The extensive use of synthesisers just leaves the listener feeling very cold.

Pity, because there are a few tracks that work very well. In "The End of Thinking", the recurring bass riff and reverberating synths convey a starkness of horror, of alienation and void. But as Tan fights out his inner conflicts, the ethereal yet funereal jazz horns bleat and wail with such fluidity that you truly feel his spirit moving you. "Plague Analyst (For Kwang)" has Tan stretching his vocals from a gothic baritone to Beth Gibbon's aching soul.

Remaining tracks like "Nico's Tears" (with its breezy bossa), "Infinity; Her Eyes" (an acoustic strum), "Ennui" and "Care of the Self" (both of commercial-sounding soul) will either go down well with you or not. (6.5)
Some Tranquil Devices (Violent Sun/Surd Sounds/Grand Hi-Pitched Music/Wolfe EP; 2001)
Published in BigO No. 192 (December 2001)

By Mark Wong

Somewhere in the tender spaces between dream and reality, violence and compassion, phantasms and life's chasms, lies Some Tranquil Devices. Fuzzbox's third EP after 1997's eponymous debut and 1998's Zero Tondo is an immaculate return to form: pensive broods and Siamese dreams between waking lashes of ripcharge guitar propulsion.

I've been a fan since experiencing the band's electric live shows some years back. And since Shuan Grosse, Linda Ong, Ho Kah Why (aka "Y") and Loo Eng Teck have been sadly absent from the gigging circuit for some time now, this EP is a welcome release from this promising local band.

Beginning with the pensive "Thrown", Fuzzbox brings us on an audio trip through a post-grunge/modern rock urban landscape pervaded by discordant emotions of numbness and empathy. Here, relationships hang in the balance, the limits of sanity are crossed and fantasy threatens to consume reality--all amid the deafening silences.

The music explores these conflicts of the heart and soul. Grosse and Y conjure up a reverie of hushed and heavy dynamics; from track to track, their guitars buzz, tinkle and wail, careen and glide, calm and agitate. Obvious influences include Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and The Smiths.

Where too many Singaporean releases have disappointed in the vocal department, Fuzzbox boast two capable singers in Grosse and bassist Ong. Grosse comes from the same school of grunge crooners as Eddie Vedder, with a voice both gravel and leather. He handles the rocking-restless "Losing Sleep" and sensitive "Touch the Sun" equally well.

On alternate tracks, Ong's vocals provide a sort of yin-yang complement. Mesmerising and alluring, Ong's aching vocals convey wistfulness, seductive charm, tragedy and innocence--usually all at once. On "(Dead White) Butterflies", she aches and chokes in the refrain: "I'm hurt by the words you don't say." "My Left Brain" casts her as yearning lover in a Bonnie and Clyde fantasy. "Let's rob a bank/Kill your wife/Let's blow up the satellite", but eventually the feeling is one of emptiness and nihilism. "Tell me what we're living for?"

With seven tracks and at 34 minutes, Some Tranquil Devices is a compact and cohesive piece of work. It certain whets the appetite for a full-length debut. (7)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Normally Open (Stained Death Music; 2004)
Published in Aging Youth #17 (June 2005)

by Mark Wong

This has to be one of the surprise releases of the year. Some seven years after we last heard from them, Camra return to the fray with a ten song-strong album, Normally Open, as if not a single day has passed since the release of "Who Wants To Know" on the BigO Singles Club No. 4.

This continuity isn't an illusion: the band, whose lineup has remained unchanged, had been recording the album since 1998.

As it turns out--depending on how one sees it--this is both Camra's strength and weakness. At its best, Normally Open is a beneficiary of time, which has not only sharpened the band's songcraft but also allowed for some very fine recording and production work, capturing perfectly a languid yet lush shoegazer feel. This has resulted in a sonic stew of simmering songs that conjure hallucinatory visions, slow(ly)-burning themselves into your brain.

At its worst, however, Normally Open sounds exactly like what it is: an album released at least seven years too late; somewhat mired in mid-90's Britain, it sounds a tad dated.

Normally Open seems to traverse The Verve's entire career, from muddy A Storm in Heaven dreamscapes (turn up the vocal/guitar reverbs, love) to the sweet, draped stringscrapes of Urban Hymns (the epic nine-minute "My Reflections", for instance, has a wry refrain which foreshadows its symphonic ending: "feel so highly-strung today/don't wanna make it go away").

Any diversions (no matter how slight) are still decidedly Anglophilic: "All Our Remedies'"is a speedier and punchier sibling of Oasis' "Cast No Shadow", which sees vocalist Marvin swaggering as though cheek by jowl with the Gallaghers in a packed tavern. Elsewhere, such as on "Reasons", we get hijacked by sitars and tablas; while I wouldn't go so far as to call this Indian mysticism-by-way-of-Kula Shaker, one can't help but make the connection. Call this Southern Soul, if you will (the thirteenth word of the album is "transcendence": go figure).

The final twist, however, is that as alluded earlier, Normally Open grows on you--if you give it time; it's as if each time you play it, it reveals a little more of its soul to you. Camra have whipped out an accomplished album, if at times stymied by its particularities. This is a band to watch out for--although, hopefully, not just once every seven years.