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)

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