14 May 2009

Let Us Rock, Singapore!

I wrote this article a while ago (around 2006) and after I published it on the Flux Us website, an international lifestyle rag which had a local arm in Singapore called THINK decided to publish it, here is the link: THINK

But I have made some slight adjustments to it below.

A personal take on the alternative / experimental music scene in Singapore and beyond by Joseph Tham (partner in Flux Us, a store specializing in experimental musics)

Situated at the southernmost tip of the Asian continent, Singapore is known worldwide for its highly efficient but ultra-sanitized political-social structure. Together with South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the island republic was collectively nicknamed the Four Economic Dragons of Asia back in the 1980s. Many might expect this tropical financial enclave to be a hub of rich cultural activities and diversity due to the seemingly cosmopolitan nature of the city. However, worthwhile musical stirrings of any sort have been mostly of the underground or alternative variety with little documentation to speak of. For most of its 42 years of history, the reigning government has exercised a tight and paternalistic control over the general state of affairs on the island. Only recently did things appear to start to change.

Back in the 1960s, The Shadows and the Beatles provided the template for many aspiring garage/blues/rock bands in Singapore, but the band craze died out due to 1) withdrawal of British forces and closure of military bases in the early 70s, and 2) the overt clampdown by the ruling regime on rock n' roll culture and its attendant constituents like psychedelic drugs and counter-cultural values in the 1970s, and most part of the 1980s.

One exception was the formation of the New Wave band, Zircon Lounge in the early 1980s, by one Chris Ho (now preferring the moniker of X' Ho) who later went on to become Singapore's very own John Peel as a deejay at Rediffusion Singapore. Zircon Lounge drew its influences from New Wave and New York Punk bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s and released one album before its eventual demise by the mid-1980s.

Chris Ho's influential programme on Rediffusion, consisting of two main segments, Eight Miles High and Weird Scenes In The Goldmine, helped bring exciting and 'dangerous' new sounds to Singaporean ears and played a pivotal part in opening them up to new musical possibilities.

He would consistently champion acts like Napalm Death and other Grindcore / Death Metal bands, REM, Sonic Youth, Einsturzende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails and Industrial music, as well as controversial Hip Hop acts like NWA.

Even though Singapore did not have legendary specialist record shops like Rough Trade or Aquarius, there were a few retailers like Dada Records (now gone) and Roxy Records, bravely selling music from the independent and underground scenes to a largely oblivious populace.

Most of the music played by Chris Ho on his programmes could be found in these shops (or one could mail order them via these shops) and thus gradually many adventurous young people began frequenting these shops and a small but vibrant circle of fans, fanzine editors and musicians formed around the premises. Groups of extreme metal, shoegazer indie, college rock and industrial music fans emerged as a result.

Besides the proselytizing efforts of Chris Ho and the availability of more cutting edge music, there was an important publication, BigO (which stands for Before I Get Old, taken from the song 'My Generation' by The Who) which started out as a photocopied fanzine but became a proper magazine in 1990.

The magazine (which is now an online publication, originals can be found in the National Library) constantly wrote about the less mainstream genres and artistes under the radar and went one step further by organizing / sponsoring events and album releases, which encouraged the growing underground band scene.

Early independent and legendary bands like the Oddfellows (heavily influenced by REM and other college jangly rock bands but with their distinctive naïve and wide-eyed spirit in place - they even had a crossover hit with 'So Happy', a jangly gem of lo-fi melodic three-minute swirl), Opposition Party (began as a English Hardcore punk-influenced group but later went on to meld Metal and Punk to produce a form of proto-Metalcore sound redolent of so many current acts in the Metal scene now; they are still around and they have just released a new album proper, but those interested in their early recordings should try to track down the essential anthological release, Chaotic Years 1989-1995 on DNC Records/Sangsara Records, Malaysia) and Corporate Toil (A Suicide-like duo which specialized in harsh synth-based electronic / vocal concoctions which managed to piss off many, without fail, whenever they performed) got a chance to put their sounds to plastic when BigO released the first volume of New School Rock, a 6 track EP CD in 1991.

A slew of subsequent volumes of New School Rock compilations were released in the next few years which helped to document the rising divergent alternative sounds on the island. The most important feature of this series of compilation was that it put bands and acts of different genres all into one CD and exposed the ghettoized music fans in Singapore to fresh music not from the usual stable of musical inspirations.

Another crucial point of the compilations was to provide a ready platform for all these budding bands, as the recording industry locally back then was ill-equipped to handle the crop of musicians determined to carve out a niche of their own. Most of them were only able to afford low-fi releases on cassettes / demo tapes in the early 1990s, and the studios then were not able to record the bands with sufficient fidelity to preserve the exciting sounds of these young bands.

By the mid 1990s, however, some major labels started to take note of the scene and the more 'radio-friendly' acts were able to have their albums released / distributed by them. Concave Scream, a goth / metal / New Model Army-influenced band and Humpback Oak, the ultra-seminal folk rock group led by Singapore's then-own Neil Young / Bob Dylan, Leslie Low, were able to cause some waves in the scene and crossover to the mainstream, albeit for a short while. Other influential and prominent bands were The Mother (Sonic Youth / Smashing Pumpkins-inspired trance-rock), the Padres (American College Rock with a British flavour. Their tracks had even been played by John Peel in the mid 1990s) who produced the 'hit' Radio Station, Pagans (Shoegazing Singapore style) and Stomping Ground (gritty metallic hardcore).

Another vital node in the network of bands and indie recording studios was the key role played by the staunchly artist-friendly arts venue, The Substation, located in the downtown area of the city. When so many venues either turned away from all these bands or stopped their association with these bands after one loud and noisy night, Substation welcomed a plethora of punk, metal, indie, grunge and what-have-you bands to perform regularly in its back garden. Gigs which would start at 2pm could last till 11pm in the night with dozens of bands thrashing it out on the small, makeshift stage and poor sound system. Many made use of these gigs to hone their musical abilities and showmanship in public.

From the late 1990s onwards, many Singapore musicians started to re-think their music. With the influence of the Internet and publications like The Wire and Straight No Chaser, the opening of many music mega stores like HMV, Tower Records (R.I.P.) and Borders (which brought in a rich variety of records and CDs previously not easily available to many Singaporeans), electronic acts / event organisers emerged. Drum N' Bass and Techno events inspired by the global colonization of electronic-based music and its key pillar, raves, were held at various small but sympathetic pubs and clubs (and even homes) on an ad hoc basis.

A few started to pick up laptops and make some noise of their own. By mid 2000s, a small but healthy scene had emerged with laptop artistes, improvisers and adventurous rock musicians coming together to form a (very) loose community pushing for cutting edge sounds in the (apparently) more-open political-social climate of Singapore today.

Our rock-folk hero, Leslie Low, had by then disbanded Humpback Oak and gone into a few years of personal musical introspection and emerged from the other side of the tunnel with one of the most successful and adventurous rock bands in Southeast Asia; The Observatory. Fusing jazz, folk, rock and electronic sounds, this six-piece is Singapore's unique answer to Tortoise, Radiohead, Jaga Jazzist and other cutting-edge rock acts.

Unsurprisingly, The Observatory has opened for Kriedler, Tortoise and Jaga Jazzist when they came to perform in Singapore. So far, the group has released three excellent albums, Time Of Rebirth, Blank Walls and their recent masterwork A Far Cry From Here. All are breakthrough releases in Singapore as the music is not standard radio fodder, but the lush rockscapes have converted many casual listeners to their side; they are able to sell out most venues they perform at and a serious group of hardcore fans are seen following them around, even for gigs featuring the other projects of the band members.

Known jokingly as the Three Amigos of laptop music, George Chua, Evan Tan (also a key member of The Observatory) and Yuen Chee Wai are key players in the electronic / noise / improvising scene. Besides performing live, they are also involved heavily in bringing in many foreign acts to perform in Singapore these past few years. Together with a small group of friends, they came together to form the loose collective known as sporesac (Singapore Sonic Arts Collective) and helped set up the experimental music record shop Flux Us.

Over the past few years, the island has seen the likes of Pan Sonic, Jazzkammer, Lasse Marhaug, DEL, Birchville Cat Motel, Antony Milton, Lawrence English, Lee Chin Sung and Lucas Abela performing, jamming and collaborating with local artistes at various venues, including numerous in-store gigs at the former premises of Flux Us.

Yuen Chee Wai has begun a curatorial live project, a series, called Hadaka, which features foreign and local artists. In June 2006 the first in the series featured the phenomenal drummer of Ruins-fame, Yoshida Tatsuya. In August 2006, Australian sound artist Oren Ambarchi anchored the second with his lush guitar abstractions.

George Chua has self-released an acclaimed album Evidence Of Things Not Seen, a solid collection of insectoid sonic nuances and ambient noise, soundscapes which evoke pastoral imageries. Evan Tan has so far released one CD-R, which sees him going for a more tranquil but no less intriguing set of grainy electronic tone etudes. Chee Wai on the other hand, is getting ready materials for his first album, which should be a cocker to anticipate as he has been known to throw in elements of extreme metal samples and dark, turbulent swirls of electronic shards into his live performances either solo or with his partner-in-crime, Alwyn Lim in their 'doom metal-lite' laptop duo Light of the South.

One important artiste to be associated with this group of musicians but who has been in the local arts scene for decades is Zai Kuning. Zai has been a butoh-inspired body dancer and installation artiste amongst many other things, and recently he has been applying his deep knowledge of traditional Indonesian / Asian-derived musical know-how onto the electric guitar. Often abrasive but soaring, Zai's music comes across often as a whirling, rapturous dervish of noise-based improvisation, either in a solitary or group improvisational setting. Yet he is also able to conjure truly moving and mystical folk sounds with just voice and acoustic guitar. He works closely with some of the younger generation of musicians and has become a beacon of guidance for many.

A contemporary of Zai's is singer-songwriter and avant musician Kelvin Tan, who remains as active as he ever was since the late 80s, and whose albums these days literally come in batches of simultaneous releases showcasing his pain-drenched confessional musings or spiky guitar-based improvs. In the 90s, way before anyone here knew what 'avant-jazz' was, Kelvin (together with bassist Ian Woo, saxophonist Kevin Guo and various electronics collaborators including George Chua) were pushing boundaries with the seminal group Stigmata. Their sole album Plumbing (sans the electronics) is a deep, dark yet thoughtfully restrained trip into depths unknown. Kelvin's continued collaborative relationship with Ian Woo as Path Integral has seen them release a collection of exploratory works for electric guitars and basses.

While the above-mentioned artistes can be considered the pioneering wave (in the case of Zai Kuning and Kelvin Tan) and the first wave of experimental music in Singapore, the second generation is up and ready. From the windswept guitarscapes of boy / girl duo, a s p i d i s t r a f l y, the no-wave improv rock duo of Engineered Beautiful Blood and some proponents from the Lion City DIY collective causing a din wherever they go, the scene here is healthier then ever.

A s p i d i s t r a f l y are deeply inspired by the ambient-stoking of Brian Eno and David Sylvian and yet have their roots in the early 1990s Shoegazing bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Ricks, the 'boy' in the duo is responsible for some of the well-sculpted sound poems this side of Labradford. Using a suitcase filled with effect pedals and other gadgetry to transmogrify the sounds he plays, many have likened the experience of their live sets to be ethereal and dreamy. The 'girl' in the duo, April provides the vocals as well as visuals projected onto a screen or a whitewashed wall surface, to accompany their lush sonic-verse. Together they blend the sensibility of shoegazer pop with the forgotten ethos of Isolationist music. They have since 2007 reached out beyond Singapore to other Asian countries like Japan and in fact they just concluded a very successful tour there and have released another great album recently.

Engineered Beautiful Blood on the other hand, take their cue from Progressive Rock and their staunch belief in doing something different to shape their brand of free rock. For a long period of time working in isolation and just content with brewing their own unique stew of music, the opening of Flux Us and an instore gig brought them to the attention of the rest of the scene. Many were blown away by the telepathic interplay between guitarist Wei Nan and drummer Shark. An amalgamation of guitar noise not dissimilar to those Noise guitar idols like Keiji Haino and Caspar Brotzmann and a free-flowing percussive style of tom-heavy drumming, is definitely very refreshing amidst the mainly laptop-dominated scene here.

A few members of the Lion City D.I.Y. collective (a group of young punks and hardcore activists out to make some joyous noise n' protest) became active participants in the avant scene after a couple of them started using laptop and electronic implements to create a mishmash of melodic-soaked noise-lectronic music. Going by eye-brow-raising nom de disques like MindFuckingBoy and One Man Nation, their performances often mix gender-bending antics and violent shouting and abuse to their guitars or other instruments to startling effect. They might be young but their enthusiasm and commitment to make some noise is sure to inject more righteous vitriol to the scene.

Younger sound artists like Ang Song Ming (also known as Circadian) and Chong Li-Chuan are also active performers and organizers in the 'sub-scene' of laptop-based music. Expatriate artists like Tim O'Dwyer, Lindsay Vickery and Darren Moore (who are from a free jazz background) have of late been very active in organizing a monthly gig series called Choppa.


Singapore plays host to visiting musicians from its neighbour in the north, Malaysia. A healthy post-rock scene has emerged since a few years ago and there is a loyal fanbase for many of these Malaysian bands, like Damn Dirty Apes (anthemic post-rock), Furniture (shoegazing melodies and fuzz) and KLPHQ (improvised noise rock dynamics).

There is also the circle of improv musicians and fans from the Experimental Musicians & Artists Cooperative Malaysia (EMACM) and their Xingwu label. The label has two great releases under its belt (the first Xingwu release was featured in The Wire 2004 year-end albums chart under the Compilations category, featuring Malaysian artistes like Goh Lee Kwang and Yeoh Yin Pin, as well as incumbents like Toshimaru Nakamura, Carl Stone, Loren Chasse and Janek Schaffer). EMACM is like the country's answer to the London Musicians' Collective in the UK.

Thailand also sees some post-rock action in the guise of Goose, which hails from Bangkok. The band blends the now ubiquitous post-rock vibe to a more J Mascis and Swervedriver feel. so:on, a multinational music collective also based in Bangkok, is active in the promotion of experimental and electronic music in Thailand. Musicians and fans of more experimental music in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand thus seem to be slowly finding their niche in the expanding global network of New Music. Given more time and some push, this might just be another new area, for many out there in the world who are hungry for more exciting sounds and ideas, to explore.

Some links to check out:
The Observatory www.theobservatory.com.sg
EMACM http://yat.ch/emacm
Orient Occident Mailorder www.orientoccidental.com

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