When I arrived in Malaysia, I didn’t know a single local band. Every line-up was just a list of names. I had no clue where to start, who to see and what to listen to. The musical landscape seemed one big void: Terra Incognita (Unknown Land). But when maps are blank, great discoveries can be made.
I met Deepset on a post-rock festival, headlined by Japanese sensation OVUM. I was blown away by OVUM’s single “The Prayer Anthem". It sounded like Phil Spector in kamikaze mood. A wall of sound as thick as the vaults of Fort Knox. The idea of 4 Japanese guys going totally berserk on stage sounded appealing. On top we got 3 local bands. Win-win.
I took us a while to find the venue in a sad mall in KL suburbia. But we soon recognized that universal charm of indie gigs. A tiny club, drinks from a cool box, 1$ for a coke, 2.5 for a beer, a friendly crowd, checking out merch in between gigs or chatting with band member ... It reminded me of Prague’s legendary 007 Strahov Klub and Ghent’s Democrazy.
Rock is small and underground in Malaysia. It’s simply not part of local culture. Malaysians are polite, always chilling and never pushy – the complete opposite of excess rock ‘n roll attitude. Maybe that’s why post-rock - with its introverted appeal, poetic dreamscapes and lack of egocentric singers – fits so well here.
Deepset - a KL quartet that’s been around since 2002 - is the best example of that. Their soundscapes are extremely cinematic. You quickly dose off into your own thoughts. On stage there’s zero pose and - apart from front man Lothfi making a shy announcement – hardly any action. But if you listen well, you see more. Deepset is a blank canvas on which you can project your own dreams. Their 2008 album – “The lights we shed shall burn your eyes” - is described as “a musical photo album, each song a polaroid capturing a story.” I love how the hypnotic guitar of “Put your dreams to sleep” slowly evolves into a sonic outburst of beauty.
Within the same spectrum, but with an extra can of condensed energy, teenage kicks and melodic piano tones, comes The Metaphor. Since the release of their self-titled EP, the band has been promoted to Malaysia’s hardest working band, playing every possible stage. My favorite track - “Faith got us here” - also has that power to transport you to a faraway beach, a windy prairie or a Parisian boulevard in autumn. It’s the perfect soundtrack for art house cinema: sad music for happy people - At least on record, because live the band goes action movie.
THEY WILL KILL US ALL
Don’t judge a book by its cover or a band by its name. They Will Kill Us All is the Malaysian version of college radio friendly, indie pop. Synth-influenced tracks like “Sirens” and “Future Nights” bring back echoes of 90’s icons Prefab Sprout. “Under the Red Sky” escapes a near collision with The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside”. While “Sons of the Fearless” turns a darker page. Expect honest labor from true songsmiths, carefully crafted melodies and polished vocals. Can’t wait to see them live.
One of those names that kept popping up on posters. After watching the cute, stop motion video of “Jelita” on Youtube, I was expecting a bunch of shy musicians with a sweet female singer. Oh boy, was I in for a surprise when I first saw them live in Bangsar. The band looked anything but shy, more like a horde of wild men, playing with the ferocity of Visigoths raiding Rome. The crowd went ballistic on Kyoto Protocol’s addictive mix of B 52’s, Funk-on-the-rocks and Benny Hill nonsense. Soon I found myself dancing on a pile of pallets.
Kyoto Protocol is a unique blend of “local foreigners” – keyboardist Gael is French, but grew up in Malaysia. Front man Fuad lived his college years in London. Bassist Shakeil seems to be flown over from the Highlands. And drummer Shan is definitely related to Lars Ulrich – or was it ‘Animal’ from the Muppet Show? Behind a façade of Fun ‘n Games, lies a rock machine that has been polished to perfection. Because, as Gael once told me: “You’re only as good as your last single. And your last gig.”
No wonder, they’ve been playing every festival and opened for rock royalty such as The Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers and Jack Black. Their first single “Pussycat” catapulted them straight into rock stardom, before releasing “An Album” (aka: “Anal Bum”). Last year saw the birth of the outstanding follow-up “Catch these Men” (aka: “Catch the Semen”). The chorus of single “Still Alive” is so addictive, it’s barely legal.
You’re right. This is not a Malaysian band, but Singapore’s leading art rock collective, founded in 2001. I first noticed them while surfing the program of the Singapore film fest. One of the hero features was a documentary called “The Obs”. Luck was on my side. A few days later, front man Leslie Low was coming to KL for some solo shows. In a small venue called Findars, surrounded by 20 similar souls, I got to meet the Asia’s Man-in-Black.
When we think of Singapore, we think: modern, polished, smooth, disciplined. The Observatory sounds anything but. It’s dark, upsetting, chaotic, restless - a secret look behind the facades of blizz and bling. Like something’s growing in the city’s underbelly. Bands traditionally reflect the world around them (think of the Mad-chester scene) or build on musical heritage (like Britpop on The Beatles). So it’s all too surprising to find a Singaporean band that’s closer related to Ensturzende Neubaten than to Singapore Sling. And just when we thought how un-Asian they sounded, they released "Continuum" (2015) – an album that gave a post-modernistic spin to Balinese gamelan bronze drums.
One extra reason why I like this band is its extreme attention to artwork. Keyboardist Vivian Wang told me that the band spent 2 days handcrafting 2000 copies of their debut album “Diary” - which came into the form of a journal. Leslie Low’s “Worm” seems infested by a bookworm. And the latest “Continuum” features outstanding illustrations by Italian artist Massimiliano Amati. In times of Mp4’s and shameless copying – The Observatory re-establishes the record as object d’art.
Quite honestly, sometimes I don’t know what to think of this band, they simply intrigue me. And maybe that’s exactly what the band wants. In a Youtube film, the Observatory explains how much they hate interviews because “You start to overthink things.” I agree.
Photo credit: Leslie Low by Findars