This year I had a great birthday weekend (well… my real birthday was on a Monday, so I celebrated on the Saturday and Sunday before). On Saturday I hung out with my guitarist Faz at Labrador Park recording demos of my original songs, and on Sunday the family and I went to brunch at the Fullerton Bay Hotel. Yay!!
Naoko and I had our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday, and it was a great day! Zen studied Chinese and math without complaint, we played catchball and went swimming, and I listened to four of the LPs that I bought on Saturday – the Carpenters, the Ventures, the Steve Miller Band and Link Wray! Great!!
After that we went off to buy shoes for Zen, and finally to our favourite dining spot in Singapore – No Signboard! This time we ordered three crabs: the staple chili crab, Zen’s favourite butter crab, and also salted egg crab. Nice! Naturally it was washed down with plenty of beer!
After that we went home, got a call from Canada from mom and dad to wish us well for our wedding anniversary, then we finished watching the great Chinese epic film Red Cliff! All right!!
We had leftover crab and gravy, so we took it home and it re-appeared tonight in the form of chili crab fried rice! Yummy!!
What a great weekend! On Friday I had a band rehearsal, on Saturday I went to see Zen’s game (see below) and ate some good buffet food at Naoko’s friend’s “20 years in Singapore” celebration, then I bought some new LPs; on Sunday we all hung out and ate pizza and drank beer! Amazing!!
The whole week there has been activity around the mourning and burial of Lee Kwan Yew, it’s been quite amazing! We wanted to go to see the funeral procession as it passed through some parts of Singapore, but it was raining quite heavily, so we didn’t go.
Here are some shots of Zen’s game, both from this week and from last week. Zen played first base in the first game, and in the second game he was the pitcher! He did well at each, and in the first game he also had great success as a batter! Zen Zen ZEN!!
Over the past two weeks, Naoko and I have done some long walking treks, often about 10 kilometres or so. Here are pictures from a few of them where we took pictures. Zen only came along on the March 15th trek.
March 15th – North Eastern Riverine Loop
Naoko and Zen at Punggol Promenade.
Wetlands near Punggol Promenade.
The North Eastern Riverine Loop. We started from the starting point at 7:30, and by about 10:00 we’d made it to Punggol Point at the top. Unfortunately, the walk beyond that is full of construction and won’t be a nice place to explore for a couple of years yet. More information here.
Rounding Punggol Point.
The view from Punggol Point. That’s Pulau Ubin in the middle.
There’s something oddly lobster-like about this tree… a lobster with green hair!!
This island is called “Coney Island” here, but on other maps it’s called Serangoon Island.
Naoko and Zen chilling out on Punggol Promenade.
Definitely Singapore’s funkiest public toilet!!
A family of otters in the Punggol Serangoon Reservoir.
This cool bridge crosses the Punggol Serangoon Reservoir to the Lorong Halus Wetland Reserve.
The Sunrise Bridge at the Punggol Waterway park.
View of the jungle that runs north of Seletar Air Base.
March 14th – MacRitchie Reservoir forest and Tree Top Walk.
Here’s a funky twisty branch/creeper/rattan that we found along the walk.
The jungle has reclaimed a tree stump…
The view from a tower.
On the boardwalk.
The jungle from Jelutong tower.
On the treetop walk.
Good morning, MacRitchie Reservoir!!
March 11th – Ulu Pandan National Park Connector trail
The sun broke through the clouds as we were walking along the beautiful Ulu Pandan Park Connector.
Naoko found a friend.
A green fence runs through it.
An old rail bridge near Clementi.
March 5th – Green Corridor hike from Cashew to Woodlands
Nice to see that helpful advice on walking techniques has been provided for the many people who have poor walking technique…
Knives of Summer, 3) – Recently, my friend Jack in Japan sent me this gorgeous CD that he’d been working on for the past three years, a solo project that he’s written, and plays guitar, drums, and sings on. It’s a stunning piece of work, with a 20-page illustrated lyrics booklet, a picture-CD and illustrated inlay card that are full of images of threesomeness (three rulers forming a triangle, three mushrooms for the lyrics to a song about mushroom consumption, and other cool song-related concepts). He’s made 500 of them and is giving them away to friends and strangers, with an inlay card encouraging people to share it on! The project is about threesomes, trilogies, and possible also the trinity (need to think of triplets of threes). As arty as it is visually, the music is also arty in its concepts, following three stories of threesomes (counted down in descending order – “Three” is the first song, “Two” comes around the middle, and “One” is the closing song), as is hinted at in the opening page where three newspaper clippings tell of three sad adventures/misadventures, each involving three people and some sort of calamity. There’s a foreword that the musical author of the project, here called Carver Lee (as he is in the musical credits) is telling his own story at the expense of his musical collaborators, who are part of the trilogy of adventurers and not just friends and sessionists. It’s full of funky misspellings like “Kool-Aide” and “Nanuray”. Carver claims it’s a true story that took place in 1994 – the story goes deeper and deeper.
The music is intense and very rich, a collection of short-his songs largely dominated by Jack/Carver’s acoustic guitar accompaniment, but also with sound effects, field sounds, outside dialogue, occasional percussion and drumming by Jack, and other groovy effects. With very few instrumental bits, the main emphasis of the vocals is on narration and some singing, making it less a piece of theatrical music (which would be nearly all singing), than a musical play or a Roger Waters-style concept album (think Radio KAOS – and with 3′s many layers of voice/voice effects over an unfolding story, this is probably the most obvious comparison); indeed, the liner notes credit Waters as one of three musicians – along with Lyndsay Buckingham and Mark Linkous – who provided inspiration. There are also three main musicians credited to the project, with three voice actors, but also nine guest musicians (3 x 3, perhaps?) on certain songs – including three who played in Tripod Jimmy – who contribute bass, vocals, electric guitar, electric solos, acoustic solos, percussion and key pads.
The lyrics are the main item of the project, and they are often very poetic, talking about “Mushrooms in a basket, a harvest for three/ Sneaky little trespassers in a field behind the trees”; where does someone come up with an image like “sneaky little trespassers”… or, heck, you could ask the same for the cool band title Knives of Summer? The project is full of such lush imagery, but they’re not the only link to poetry – the opening song, “3″ is written in some sort of pentameter with a complex rhyme scheme on words that sound like “three”. All throughout the tale, there are references to partying and drug use, pastoral images of summer love, friends hanging out, idle days of youth, romance and emotional intensity, ageing and family tensions, fighting, violence, emotional immaturity, and so many other themes besides.
The opening song “Three”, starts the fun with a spare palate of spooky talking-singing and some deep guitar that characterises many of the songs on the project – it builds up to become more and more musical, eventually with four or five layers of guitar and droning sound effects. Wow! Lyrically, it sets the stage for our three protagonists to meet and become emotionally involved. “Let Me In” introduces Knives of Summer’s musical collaborators on bass and electric guitar, with the song flying trippy and droney, and builds up themes of drug hallucination, fumbling and crashing with weird noise. “Tourniquet Rules” is a gorgeous, standout piece with an opening mood similar to “Three” that builds in a memorable bit of female vocals on an intriguing lyric: “Tourniquet rules, twists in time/together we share the ties that bind”. With its subtle noise effects, this is one spooky song! “The Treehouse” tells the story that is related in a newspaper article on the first page of the booklet about a “death by misadventure” involving a treehouse and a noose. It proceeds, spooky as hell and is full of crazy musical ideas. Here we get a cameo from Shane Inwood, shouting voice and rock guitar, with more mood and sound. Crazy! “Ricky Eats The Rest” keeps the tension alive with spooky sounds that drone like a heartbeat, and then rocks out with a loud David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Gabe Whyel, who played with Jack in the early 1990s in Jack Slam, a band once described as “Japan’s first (and hopefully last!) Grunge band”. “Mother” is a short, vocal-and-acoustic guitar track that gives an interesting version of the history of the world and its holy wars. “The Walk” brings in a bit of drum and percussion, perhaps for the first time on the album, a song that starts mellow, but builds up quickly with some quiet intensity, and a nice cricket chirp beat rises 30 seconds into the song that sounds at once familiar and also alien in the recording; there’s a nice acoustic instrumental part to the second half of the song, perhaps the longest on the recording, that’s punctuated by a bit of scene-setting chatter that makes you feel like you’re taking in a cool movie (perhaps Terrence Mallick’s Badlands?). “Two” is some sort of woody love song, also voice and guitar strums with by a bit of keyboard. “The River i) the romance, ii) mother goes to hell, iii) carla freaks”, with its complicated title and three distinct parts is (nearly) the longest song on the album, at 4:33. It’s set next to a river, with the sound or burbling and people playing in the water as it hums along with gorgeous acoustic guitar and lazy singing, working its way up slowly faster, with electronics, beat, then full rock drumming, and some new sounds and moods as the pastoral scene gets dark (which is hinted at in the introduction – “I will save the dark stuff for part two”), and ends with some cool keyboard sounds!
“Soliloquy” is the first part of what (in the lyrics book) is called “Ricky’s Redemption”, and takes us back to the treehouse, full of dark images and tense drama, alternated with jangling sounds and fuzzy keyboard, scary rumbles and beautiful female vocals contrasting the narration of a dead person (or is he?). “The Play” continues the action and the drama and weirdness, twisting what we thought happened to our protagonists, and upping the pace of the music to some cool zooming action as we feel the tension of the accidental hanging and get some strange Jane’s Addiction harmony moods. David Notter provides a frantic acoustic guitar solo in the reprise to the song, which includes also Casey Virock’s peculiar multi-tracked pluckings and funk guitar – moody insanity here, augmented by organ and voices, all very nice. “All In Blood” is probably the biggest song on the recording, with dramatic situations, broad guitar, warbling choruses and harmonies, drum, guitar multilayers from Shane and Matthew Solberg, with a bit of jamming in the second half of the song. Fun! “Three, pt. 2″ starts off with spooky, psychedelic moods augmented by what sounds like a theremin, akin perhaps to moments of early Rush musical discoveries, and then a return to the Carver Lee on voice and acoustic guitar as the treehouse adventure continues: two injured boys and the woman they love, “we’re guided by a fickle mistress, and love is all we need. Our fate contains a tender heart. There’s room in there for three.” Great! Faith, love and pain, another trinity!! Musically, the song has a lovely groove and is awash with a sweet, pastoral flow. “Warrior Returns” feels tenser, with a droning electronic beat, tense drums, and… strings?! Another, bigger, not-so-pastoral world here of President Heston and Gulf War veterans. “Message to Aunt Jenny” is just that, a message recording machine playback of family mechanics and the infirmity of old age. Nice mellow guitar keeps it going, and there’s a gorgeous solo here from Fuyuki Hiroyoshi to end it off. “One” (which will never be mistaken for the song of the same name by Metallica or U2) starts off with beautiful female singing, and it almost feels like another band’s song in some ways before Carver’s voice comes in, and big drums and another Fuyuki Hiroyoshi takes the song to its end. “Track 17″ is a bit of an out-take that starts in silence, then wanders into some music and a short dialogue sketch.
This is the kind of recording that is a lot of fun to listen and re-listen to while fondling and flipping through the booklet, following along the lyrics, and just trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The music lilts and moves you along with a nice acoustic groove and strange, twisted Sonic Youth movements that rise, darkly, right out of nowhere. The production is excellent and it just sounds fantastic. An amazing feat for everyone involved in the Knives of Summer, but especially its conceptualist Carver Lee!
Today, Naoko and I walked along the “green corridor” that has runs through Singapore where the former Malaysia Rail route ran. The section we walked today, from where the green corridor meets Ulu Pandan Road all the way north past Bukit Timah hill to the Ministry Of Defence buildings next to Upper Bukit Timah Road, was nine kilometres, and took us about two hours. The route corresponds roughly to the green close-up maps in the middle of the green corridor map here.
It was a beautiful day for walking, and as it hasn’t rained recently the route was pretty dry (we had good timing – it rained this afternoon, so a walk tomorrow might not have been as good). We walked through pristine rain forest, past the old Bukit Timah Rail Station, crossed the Bukit Timah Road rail bridge, then went off the route at one point close to Bukit Timah Plaza when we saw some gorgeous bougainvillea flowers, and discovered a quaint neighbourhood called Mayfair. We’ll go back there another day to wander around. We passed Bukit Timah hill, and went over the Upper Bukit Timah Road rail bridge at Rail Mall, then along more beautiful paths. We heard lots of interesting bird calls, saw birds and butterflies, and at some point a pair or larger animals were heard rustling through the undergrowth to the side of the path – I once briefly saw something that might have been a fox hopping through the bushes!
FYI, I wrote a similar blog about walking the green corridor in 2013, giving a bit more background – find it here.
When we got to the end of the trip, we slipped off to Karu’s Indian Banana Leaf Restaurant for some food, and boy did it ever taste good!! Went home in the afternoon and took a long nap. Aaaaaahhhh!!
In November I had a back operation. Recovering at home, I had a mind to read mainly light fiction, and I indulged in three series of youth fiction – The Tripods quartet, the Giver quartet, and the Earthsea cycle. Other than the first book of Earthsea, which I read as a kid, the remaining 15 books in these series were new to me; in fact, I’d never even heard of The Tripods and The Giver before 2014! But it was a great journey, and here’s a bit of information about these books.
The Tripods Quartet – John Christopher
A friend of mine who knows more about sci-fi than I do recommended the Tripod series for my 12-year-old. I got him the first book, The White Mountains, but he didn’t show an interest, so I read it instead. It was fantastic! I eventually read the full series, discovering that the fourth-written book is in fact a prequel, and could easily be read as the first instalment – the prequel is written in near-contemporary times, whereas the three “main” books cluster the timeline around the same characters and are set in the relatively-distant future (200-400 years from “now”, probably) when the Tripods return human civilisation to easier-to-manage feudal societies.
The first book (in terms of publishing timeline), The White Mountains, is indeed a very nice book for kids. The futuristic Kamandi-like world is very interesting, and you can have a lot of fun figuring out what he’s really doing, where he’s travelling, which part of our world he’s actually in during his post-apocalyptic times, and the action and human relationships are strong and believable.
Christopher had been a writer of adult fiction until that stage, and although he pulls youth fiction off well, there are times when you really wonder if he’s not writing over the heads of his intended audience when he contemplates whether he’d be happier off as a slave-who-didn’t-know-or-care-that-he-was-a-slave in the Matrix-like universe of the Tripods, or whether he’d be better off as a partisan/guerrilla, living and fighting in the hills. Existential philosophy for 12-year-olds.
This edition has a very interesting foreword by Christopher where he recounts what he went through writing this book, and very different types of correspondences he exchanged with his London publisher (“Great, let’s publish it the way it is!”) and his New York editor (“Rewrite!!”).
With The City Of Gold And Lead, the second-published book in the series, Christopher ups the ante by building a complex and exciting tale: Will has been training in the mountains for some time, now he’s sent undercover with a mission to infiltrate the lands of the brainwashed humans, and then eventually enter the city of the Tripods itself, where he learns their terrible secrets.
To say any more would be to spoil the many pleasures of this amazing book, so I shall refrain – suffice it to say that I wish that more adult books were written as economically as this one has been, and as intricately plotted!! Naturally, it has been immaculately edited, and I can hardly tell of any dross, except maybe for a superfluous misadventure at the beginning.
The Pool Of Fire is the third book in the Tripods series, with each book being equally good, and exciting for entirely different reasons. Just to recap: the first book introduces the “human slaves and their alien overlords” situation and characters, but is a simple “flight to safety” story, while the second is a “going undercover into the land of our enemies” tale. Now it’s up to the third book to wrap the saga up convincingly with an ingeniously-crafted “puny humans use their brains to overcome a seemingly invincible enemy”. Great to see how tables can be turned to defend an over-run homeworld.
Christopher even includes a final chapter that meditates on the nature of democracy, the cultures of the Earth, and man’s ability to get on with fellow man in times of peace as well as times of war; he does the same throughout the books as well in more subtle ways, such as Will’s interactions with the character Ulf, and also Julius’ criticisms of our young hero, each time doing it with style and panache.
Each part of the Tripods series is fantastic, and the prequel When The Tripods Came is no exception – it completely rocks!! I started reading from the first-released book, The White Mountains, but any reader could start here too and follow the stories in their natural reading order, with The White Mountains as the second book, etc.
When The Tripods Came is set in a near-contemporary setting, and tells the tale of – you guessed it – when the Tripod overlords came to Earth. The tale unfolds marvellously, with the first encounter, the reaction, and the unfolding of the Tripods’ insidious plan. The narrowing of the escape hatch is impressive to read in its unfolding, and we see our heroes move from indifference to desperation within only 100 pages or so. Great development!! By the ending, we know that hope should be lost, but somehow Christopher builds a bridge to the next 200-400 (??) years of human enslavement, without building an obvious and literal link to The White Mountains. A stunning tale!!
All of these books are fantastic for kids, and just as great for adults as well!!
This series is also highly consistent, with all four books of similar excellence; the same cannot be said for other youth fiction series, like the other two reviewed here – the Giver Quartet, and the Earthsea Cycle – which are fairly inconsistent.
The Giver Quartet – by Lois Lawry
My 13-year-old son actually turned me on to this book, which I’d never heard of before. His class will be studying it in their English Literature class, so he gets to study it for a few months. Lucky kid.
I don’t remember the last time a book shook me to the core, but somehow The Giver did just that. I didn’t have high expectations, as the description makes the book sound like a corny post-apocalyptic dystopian tale, and just another Brave New World or Starship Troopers dumbed down for kids; but in many ways author Lois Lowry uses the setting, with a young apprentice learning a lost art from a wizened elder, to introduce challenging ideas of social structures and their pros and cons, all in an easy-to-understand way. The learning process that young Jonas undergoes, and how he comes out of his shell and into the harsh light beyond, is quite amazing. This is a light book, 200 pages of lightly-spaced text, so you can finish it quickly, and with its spareness the tightly-edited tale allows no excess. Highly recommended.
I started reading the sequel, Gathering Blue, the day I finished The Giver, and prepared to see the recently-released film version of The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges (which, unfortunately, isn’t very good at all).
Gathering Blue is a great novel, and a wonderful sequel to The Giver, although it doesn’t deal at all with Jonas and Gabriel and the fate they meet following the cliffhanger ending Lowry gives The Giver.
This book deals with Kira and her medieval society, its rules, its secrets, and the unusual fate of three very special children. I’ve become a bit cynical about fiction after many years of voracious reading, but I am thoroughly enjoying Lowry’s wonderful ideas and style. Gathering Blue is just as remarkable as The Giver, although in completely different ways.
In her third book in The Giver Quartet, Messenger, Lowry continues building her fascinating vision of a future society, this time in a utopian village that is slowly being poisoned by inside and outside forces. Lowry keeps it a bit conceptual and metaphorical, a step away from the harsh magic-infused science fiction of The Giver, with the action focussing on Matty, the scamp from the second book who aids and befriends Kira. As it turns out, Matty also has special powers… so by now we have five or six mutants in Lowry’s world; here also we see the characters from the three books come together in ways that were only hinted at in the second book, and we find out what became of the boy on the sleigh – even getting hints of what became of the world he escaped from. At only 180 pages, the book is short, tight, and fast-moving – a great read.
The longest entry in The Giver Quartet, Son, wraps it up by bringing together characters from its three predecessors, but focussing very much on those from the first book (Joshua and Gabriel, plus one of their contemporaries – Claire, a new character to the series). It doesn’t quite do it successfully, though, but it has a lot of great parts full of exquisite prose.
Son is divided in to three books, the first one concerning Claire’s life in the city of The Giver, the second one looking at her life in a newly-discovered village (probably the best part of the book, a stand-alone tale full of magic and poetry), while the third one is a sort of Howl’s Moving Castle fairy tale that somehow tries to sew everything together… while also making it more un-real and strange.
It’s probably not Lowry’s best book in the series, although parts of it may actually exceed anything in the earlier three books. The first part of Son offers us a few new insights into the emotionless hyper-modern society that Joshua and Gabriel lived in for The Giver, but maybe not enough to provide any new perspectives on how it became the monstrosity that it is, while the last part can offer no satisfying consolidation of the previous four books. The middle part is the best, to the point where it may even seem like the parts before and after it were hardly necessary. In that sense, perhaps this book could have been edited much more tightly than it was – certainly, the previous three books were very lean, lovely tales – this one… less so.
The Earthsea Cycle (six books) – by Ursula K Le Guin
I read The Wizard Of Earthsea as a kid and remembered enjoying it very much; now that I have a 12-year-old, I thought that I could get it for him to read and expand his horizons beyond a voracious reading of the Rick Riordan books. Well, he wasn’t interested, so I took the opportunity to re-read it and found myself enjoying it immensely as an adult. The tale of Ged/Sparrowhawk is fascinating, and Le Guin is masterful in how she tells about his youth, the discovery of his magical powers, his growth and coming of age, his near-fall and redemption, and generally the bizarre island world of Earthsea where sea commerce is nearly everything. Great tales of ocean voyages, discovery, magic, arrogance, redemption, and even more exploration. The conflict in the book is highly metaphorical, and by making it physical Le Guin also get metaphysical. Wow all around!
At the same time as I was re-reading this, I have also been reading the Game Of Thrones books, and find so much more to enjoy in this simple tale, where nothing is purple or over-written. Martin’s world of Westeros, with its kingdoms, languages and warring clans, bears some similarity to Earthsea, but it is so much more compelling. Bravo! It left me hungry to read the rest of the Earthsea series of books (and I’ll probably re-read this book before too long); unfortunately, only the second book is as good, with the fourth book nearly unreadable; this first book is also only one of two books that includes extensive sea travel and visits to various islands throughout the archipelago that gives Earthsea so much of its unique character (the other being The Farthest Shore); I guess Le Guin just got seasick. A pity, because this gives us fewer excuses to study the amazing map of Earthsea that Le Guin provides.
Book Two, Tombs Of Atuan is a great book for both kids and adults. It tells the continuing story of Ged Sparrowhawk and the magic of Earthsea, looking in particular at the culture of the Kargs (a cluster of four islands at the top right of the map of Earthsea, and not far from Ged’s native island of Gont), their worship of the sinister Nameless Ones, and the young Dali Lama-like priestess, Tenar, selected for her role because she was born the same day the former priestess died.
The tale is told in the third person, but from her perspective, and we don’t even meet Ged until nearly halfway through the book. This makes the journey of discovery in the tale quite rich, and we learn much more about her than we do of him. We see her grow from frightened girl to a playful child apprentice, and then a haughty priestess, before becoming a discerning free thinker who can make her own decisions and exert her power and influence. Great!!
Le Guin does a great job of describing the terror of darkness in the depths of the tombs, and later also the terrifying power of the Nameless Ones; through Ged, we understand more and more of the make-up of the magic of Earthsea, the emergence of the God Kings of Karg, and the history of one of its greatest treasures.At just 180 pages, it’s a quick, tight read, and packed with awesomeness!!
After the foundation tale A Wizard Of Earthsea, which established Sparrowhawk/Ged as a major character in the world of youth fiction and fantasy, and the supremely plot-driven mystic-psychological drama The Tombs of Atuan, Le Guin offers us the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, as a blend of the two – a distant voyage to the ends of the earth chasing dragons and other shadowy figures like the first novel (and more explanation of the “mirror image/alter ego” concept), and introducing a significant new character like the second. Part of the tale is about humans abandoning their humanity and embracing murkiness, and Le Guin writes this way – aimless, murky, unfocussed. Much of the middle is about wandering and stumbling, and it doesn’t make for fun reading, although I understand why Le Guin might have wanted to write like this. The new character, Prince Arren, is supposed to be noble, but he doesn’t make a strong impression, and we have no sense of where he comes from or where he’s going – in spite of the fact that most of the book is written from Arren’s point of view (inexplicably flying off from time to time to look in on other characters). There’s also a bit of fussing with dragons, which is interesting, but also murky and unfocussed. Le Guin takes a stab at social commentary, attacking both commercialism and drug-taking before moving the characters on in their voyages. Overall the book is disjointed, with a murky conclusion and only occasional snatches of brilliant, lucid writing. There’s also a brief flirtation with gay themes, or at least brotherly infatuation/man-love. On the plus side, our travellers do visit about 10 different islands, and Le Guin mentions many others, giving plenty of excuses to pore over the brilliant map of Earthsea provided in the book.
The Farthest Shore was initially published as part of a cluster of three Earthsea books written within a few years (and therefore often described as the concluding tale of the Earthsea trilogy). Le Guin would go nearly 20 years before coming up with the next installment, Tehanu. Published after a gap of so many years, the fourth book is yet again a vastly different book. Largely concerned with domestic items, very little happens between the books opening chapter, which establishes the background and key events of the book, and page 150, when we get our first act of movement. By page 210 we get our first major incident, and by page 255 things finally start to get very interesting. The book has 270 pages. You get passages like “She smiled at his wit and kindness. What a nice boy he is, she thought.” While I realise that a criticism like this is incredibly unkind to the hard work that the author put into building her creation, I can’t help but think that if this tale had been trimmed down substantially it would have made a great 30-page short story.
Le Guin has been very defensive of her vision for the book, clearly resentful of the critical savaging it got. She wanted to write a book of themes – womanhood, powerlessness, old age, feelings of frustration, domesticity, disenfranchisement, the oppression of the patriarchy, bullying, and the unseen power/potential of the underdog. These are all noble themes, and are often visited by other great authors like Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and others; certainly, it is very brave of Le Guin to turn two incredibly strong characters (Ged and Tenar) into powerless underdogs for the sake of the development of these themes she feels are important to explore. But they feel a bit oppressive here, as they completely overcome any semblance of a story-telling novel, which is what the first three books in the Earthsea cycle have led us to expect. A such, I cannot help but feel disappointed with Tehanu; however, I’m going to continue on and read the remaining two books that Le Guin has so far added to the cycle, Tales From Earthsea (a collection of short stories – yay!), and The Other Wind, the latest Earthsea.
Given how the four Earthsea books that come before the fourth book, Tales From Earthsea, vary widely in quality – from the fascinating first two books, an okay third book, and a nearly unreadable fourth book – it only goes to follow that the various short stories in this collection would also vary in quality: some that are great and some that are not-so-great (although it’s only the introduction that is really terrible). Le Guin spends a fair amount of time repressing her female characters so that she can talk about double standards, hypocrisy, and women’s liberation (Earthsea style) in a way that I can’t help but feel is a bit contrived, but at least she’s dealing with Big Ideas as she weaves her tales of fantasy… (incidentally, this theme is almost totally absent from the final book, where women and men have equal footing, and gender roles are never contentious).
The first story, The Finder, tells the tale of Otter and the women in his life, how he tries to sabotage the ships of pirates, then becomes a magical slave, a wizard, and eventually one of the founding teachers of Roke; his return to his home is interesting, deadly, and the tale has all the charm (and nearly the length) of the original Wizard Of Earthsea, including an epic backwards double-cross. Great!
“Darkrose And Diamond” is an interesting love story about a young wizard and a witch’s daughter. It’s light, unexpected, and quite charming.
“The Bones Of The Earth” is a less satisfying tale, as it deals a lot with a wizard wandering around in the forest, looking after his chores, thinking about life… and averting an earthquake; concentrate on this one, or you’ll get lost.
“On The High Marsh” is an much better tale; it starts off very pastoral and pedestrian, but eventually becomes terrifyingly intense… somehow. Real magic in this tale.
“Dragonfly” is another long-ish tale, this time about a mysterious woman who wears a man’s clothing, Yentl-like, to enter the school on Roke. Amazing things occur when this happens that tie it in (somehow) with the ending of Tehanu! The tale introduces interesting new characters, it’s not bad; it also ties in with the events of The Other Wind, the sixth book in the cycle.
At the end of the book is some sort of “Description of Earthsea” appendix, which is a bit boring to read through, as it talks about the history, languages and cultures of Earthsea. It’s decent as reference material, although anyone who’s read the five books so far would have been able to piece together on their own most of what is contained here; one thing that is remarkable, though, is how Le Guin writes that the runes of Earthsea resemble Chinese ideograms, referencing for the first time in an Earthsea book anything from our own world.
A nice book, better even than The Farthest Shore, in parts nearly as interesting as A Wizard Of Earthsea or The Tombs of Atuan.
Finally the Earthsea Cycle draws to a close with The Other Wind. This book builds on the situations created in the third and fourth books in the cycle (The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu, respectively) and their characters, also referencing to the short story “Dragonfly” from the fifth book, Tales From Earthsea. Ged and Tenar, the main characters of the first two (and best) books of the series are only minor characters in this tale, and Ged hardly appears at all; he is also entirely inactive, other than listening to Alder’s tale and recommending him to visit King Lebannen in Havnor.
The tale is one of court life and philosophical discussions, abstract changes, unifying concepts, and general inactivity. Hardly anything happens in the book, but then again so much happens; in this way, the book is very similar to Tehanu, which has nearly no activity or development until the closing pages, but it is still a better book than Tehanu as we get plenty of new characters, fine character development, and also a sense of closure to the Earthsea cycle. But be sure to pay close attention to the book as you read, or you’ll miss important developments, or just generally get lost; it’s not an easy book to read, despite being lumped into the category of young adult fiction (which may have been true of the first two books, but hasn’t been the case for a long time).
Le Guin, in an afterword, hints that there are more stories from Earthsea, but in many ways they are not necessary.
Semi-unrelated footnote: In 2006, a Japanese animated film version of an Earthsea story was released. It was originally supposed to be directed by Miyazaki Hayao himself, but in the end was turned over to his son, Miyazaki Goro, to be his directorial debut. The Japanese title of this film translates as “The record of Ged’s adventures”, and is a misnomer – the book is less about Ged than it is about a relatively minor character in Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, Prince Arren. The English title, Tales From Earthsea, is also misleading, as it is the same title as the fifth book of the Earthsea series (which has six books so far), but draws its characters more from the third and fourth (and worst) books of the series (ironically, the book Tales From Earthsea only includes Ged as a minor character in a short part of one of its five short stories). I suspect the English title was given as a matter of convenience, while the selection of the Japanese title is a complete mystery (not to mention the fact that Ged goes by his nickname of Sparrowhawk throughout most of the movie).
I read reviews of this that said it was awful, but given my interest in the book series (and healthy respect for Ghibli Studios), I needed to watch this film to satisfy my curiosity. Sadly, it really is a terrible film. Nothing makes sense plot-wise, the characters are uninteresting, and the screenplay has almost completely reinvented the source material. Events from Ged’s life are transferred to Arren’s, whose father is introduced haphazardly for the film (he’s never featured in the book). The relative age of the characters is all over the place, and Therru is about 10 years older for the movie than she was in the books, and has been turned into a moody little creep with cliched anime mannerisms (poutiness, etc). The depiction of the wizard Cob is interesting, although also a bit hackneyed by regular Japanese anime standards.
The opening scenes in the court of Enlad, with talk about trade disruptions in the kingdom and a mysterious blight sweeping the crops and peoples, has all the charm of the opening scroll of The Phantom Menace. So many things in the plot are confusing, like why suddenly wolves are attacking Arren, why Sparrowhawk even takes the kid on as a travelling companion in the first place, or why Lord Cob is in such desperate need of slaves (I’m sure there’s no reason for any of this, other than to drive action scenes that build to some sort of a conclusion). Of course, the ending is pretty exciting, and the downfall of Cob is terrifying to watch; the theme about a door between life and death is also a grand one, which Le Guin somehow explores in a few of her books, most notable The Farthest Shore.
The quality of the animation is also pretty clunky, and at times I felt like I was watching an animated TV show from the 1980s or so. Not really what you’d expect from Studio Ghibli.
There’s nothing like getting a double-dose of Sade, two CDs of magic, songs plucked from her six studio releases so far (three from “Diamond Life”, four from “Promise”, three from “Stronger Than Pride”, six from “Lovers Deluxe” – nearly the whole album, which only had nine songs anyway – four from “Lovers Rock”, and three from her latest, “Soldier Of Love), which it follows along in chronological order, along with a three new tunes – the standout among these, or course, is “Still In Love With You”, the Thin Lizzy masterpiece – and two remixes, one with a completely unnecessary Jay-Z rap, and another one remixed by the Neptunes.
It’s a smooth flow of jazzy soul from “Your Love Is King” to “Smooth Operator” to “Hang On To Your Love” to “The Sweetest Taboo”, to the bluesy darkness, sweet horns, and stirring piano of “Is It A Crime”, and the good feelings and deep thrum of “Never As Good As The First Time”. “Jezebel” is smoky and cool, but it lightens up with “Love Is Stronger Than Pride”, the airy opener to the Stronger Than Pride release (my first of Sade’s, incidentally). “Paradise” funks the air up a bit, and “Nothing Can Come Between Us” adds a male voice into the mix. Next up is Sade’s real masterpiece, “No Ordinary Love”, a song so awesome that the Deftones covered it. That bass line is hot… and so is everything else about this song!! “Kiss Of Life” and “Feel No Pain” are more chilled out and breeze along, while “Bullet Proof Soul” rounds out the first disc with more silky, somber moods and lots of sax!
“Cherish The Day”, opening disc two, is moody and sweet, while “Pearls” is a gloomy tune about a woman in Somalia living a hard life – voice, keyboard, violin. Sweet. “By Your Side” is somber and poppy. “Immigrant” hums and thrums with some programmed beat and that gorgeous voice, simple, with cool bass thrums. “Flow” is a little thing with a programmed beat, also very somber, mildly clubby but also kind of forgettable. “King Of Sorrow” has some nice guitar sounds, also very sad-sounding. But Sade’s howling voice is in top form here – wow! “The Sweetest Gift” is a very short song, you hardly notice it because it’s so mellow, and then it’s over, a guitar companion to “King Of Sorrow”, just voice and guitar. Wow! “Soldier Of Love” is the title track of Sade’s latest album, and it’s pretty nutty – by Sade standards, with a large pulsing beat, and near-talking throughout. Over-production? Sorta. But it’s still a cool, moody song. “The Moon And The Sky” is a spooky song on a repeating riff, with some odd electronics. “Babyfather” is a pretty conventional Sade song, and could easily have appeared on an earlier album, with its cheerful chorus and good mood. “Still In Love With You” is a great version of the Thin Lizzy song, and only the second cover that Sade has ever done (after Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”). A bit of electronic beat is kind of icky, but the guitar is great, and the production builds up. Sade’s voice is fantastic here! “Love Is Found” is full of quivering strings, then building up to a dramatic, metallic climax a la “Soldier Of Love”, but quite a bit more successful, I’d say. Weird hip hop elements and sharp guitars at play here. Wow!! “I Would Never Have Guessed” is much simpler fare, a beautiful (and short) piano ballad, full of wonderful breathing and sighs… wow… this is Sade!! “The Moon And The Sky [Remix]” does not build on the original, just makes it noisier and fairly obnoxious (not normally a word used to describe Sade’s music, surely, but there’s always room for something new…). The unnecessary rap bit by that guy is also quite awful! “By Your Side [Neptunes Remix]” is sweet and pretty and nice… and only a wee bit obnoxious. Not sure what the Neptunes add, although I’m sure they’re nice guys…
The third disc is a collection of Sade videos, lasting one hour and ten minutes. “Hang On To Your Love” is set in a casino with silly dancers, the band plays fake instruments, there are frozen gamblers, ballet dancing with baby, Sade is gorgeous; ”The Sweetest Taboo” has Sade jamming with her band in a loft while it rains outside, mixed with pictures of her Spanish husband of the time, cute hats on the boys, spaghetti western setting, Sade sashays stiffly around the hall, “Temor”; “Is It A Crime” seemingly continues where “the Sweetest Taboo” left off, the band jams around a bit, adds London street scenes, there’s a regretful man and a lovers spat; “Never As Good As The First Time” has Sade riding horses on the beach, black and white images, toreador kids, cowboys; “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” shows our lady wandering the beach in a red dress, swelling and pulsating waves in the near distance – a trick of focus, dress over one shoulder, wandering with band, rolling in the sand, freckly and lithe; “Paradise” has Sade in a straw hat grooving with kids at a small carnival, mingling with boxers and Latin dancers, spaghetti western stuff; “Turn My Back On You” is experimental, with Las Vegas Strip lights a la James Bond, the band as Rat Packers, goofing around; “Nothing Can Come Between Us” is a live stage video thing, with Sade looking great in a white lace dress, sporting a big crucifix necklace, the band looking cool in their black suits; “No Ordinary Love” is cool with Sade as a mermaid, flirting with a drowning man, necking underwater – OUCH!! Then as a bride showing off her belly, in a redneck bar, throwing rice (or salt?) in the streets, Hellraiser III in the theatres, scum everywhere…, great harbor scenes; “Feel No Pain” is full of more great sepia shots of dry earth, naked Sade and gauze, hands, desert platforms, topless bare back beauty, clouds, landscapes desert, water splashing dusty heads, gorgeous; “Kiss Of Life” is city modern, images, neon, lush apartments, naked statues, abstract images, rainy windows, lava lamps; “Cherish The Day” has a scantily-clad Sade playing a Gibson Les Paul on the beach, and on the top of a New York skyscraper with the World Trade Center in the background, grooving ‘till nightfall; “By Your Side” has a fun Garden of Eden setting, with the Tree of Life, sunset colors, and a gorgeous Sade – the band hasn’t shown up for quite a while at this point – and glowing lights, jewels, fireflies, moss, swamp, winter dancing, the band finally reappears in the trees, in the orchard, fake city, yellow brick road, LA street corner and back to reality; “King Of Sorrow” with Sade as a single mother, goofy family life, chores, stress, buses, markets, and the night club band; “Soldier Of Love” big bright bombastic, nutty dancing,, horses and abstract images, lightning, deserts, wonderwoman lassoing; “Babyfather” has Sade as a silky homemaker dancing over a sink of dishes, running a Jell-o van, sakura dancing – yay!
Here are some cool interview segments demonstrating the magic of Sade!
Sade’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” (Montreaux, 1984)
Timmy Thomas’ original “Why Can’t We Live Together” (1972)
I’d argue that Sade probably doesn’t have any bad songs, so a “greatest hits” collection is only a poor replacement for listening to all of her albums back-to-back in a single long afternoon, preferable with many drinks (wine? No… gin and tonic!). As such, many great songs were overlooked, but the one I really miss is “Why Can’t We Live Together”, the Timmy Thomas song that was the only cover on her first album (and one of the few she’s ever done, after “Still In Love With You”, of course).
Until I was introduced to The Observatory in 2009, I was fairly pessimistic about the Singapore music scene. I’d been looking for the type of talent, innovation and creativity that had been so abundant in my previous port of call, Osaka, but only came across a few defunct or semi-retired bands – the Oddfellows, Force Vomit – that were interesting. Then, in September 2009, a friend invited me to see this band that she was really into called The Observatory. I went and was really blown away by what they were all about – unusual song structures, strange pacing, avant garde sounds, and unconventional covers like Nick Drake’s “River Man” and The Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”.
Leslie Low, Vivian Wang and Dharma Shan were really interesting people and happy to hang out with the fans. I stayed in touch with them on Facebook, and they recognise me when I turn up at shows. It’s become a stamp of quality that if a member of The Observatory is involved in solo project or some other spinoff that it’s going to be well worth the effort in tracking down the recording; their recorded body of work is amazing, and of course their live shows are phenomenal.
Since 2009, I’ve found a lot of other original music in Singapore (too many to list, and so many good friends among musicians and supporters alike, across several scenes…), and have even made some of my own; but somehow, none of the other bands – as amazing as they are – are yet within striking distance of true global cult status the way The Observatory are. I can practically see them writing the soundtrack music for a Jim Jarmusch film (well… they’re probably too cool for Jim Jarmusch by now, actually)! There’s always something edgy about them, whether it’s playing live accompaniment to a Japanese film from the silent pictures era, playing cold electronic music underneath the artificial “sky trees” at the Gardens By The Bay, or road-testing their upcoming release in rural Thailand.
Reviewed here are the official Observatory releases, as well as Observatory-related side projects, and a few live shows. Enjoy!
The Observatory recorded music
Oscilla - This is a very exciting album! As Singapore’s premiere art rock/noise rock group, with musical pedigrees stretching back 25 years and more, it seems that the band would have travelled nearly every musical corner – but never this one! They’ve toured parts of the world and are one of the edgiest bands in Asia, and this album doesn’t disappoint by getting really nutso with plenty of freaky early Pink Floyd vibes (Saucerful Of Secrets, that is), and utter Talk Talk ideas, not to mention jagged Sonic Youth pronouncements. The album runs for 40 minutes, but has only four songs – alternating one short and one long – and starts off with ‘Subterfuge”, with its spooky noise, drum, and gutteral guitar riffs. The song mixes everything in – deep vocals, sweet harmonies, stark riffs, white noise, sweetly steady drumming and percussion. Wow! Title track “Oscilla” has complicated hits and punctuations and soaks the beat right out of you, while catapulting you along. The lyrics are spooky and surreal, “a fire incantation”, freaky guitar soloing, wild about-face groovy zoom, and a conclusion. “Autodidact” goes into more direct political realms, and is focussed on vocals and lyrics, with brief chill-out instrumental drama zones – then more awesome soundscapes natural and unnatural, before things come back to the beautiful. The album closes with the martial drumming of “Distilled Ashes” and jagged riffing, and despite being over 13 minutes long this song is perhaps the most memorable of the album, with great lyrics (“the sound of mind erosion”), and the psychedelic guitar, tabla, wild fantasies, psycho jam-outs, jarring slow-downs with Jesu-like beats, sweet organ melodies, juggernaut squeals, and the ultimate revelation – we are alone. It’s difficult to use words to describe such a lush musical experience. I’ve listened to this album more than ten times since it came out and just love it!! It comes in all sorts of media, including both black and moss green vinyl (I have both), a cassette, and a CD.
Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes
Behind These Eyes – The Catacombs Remixes - I’m normally not a fan of remix albums, but this one is a lot of fun. Given that the original Catacombs album is incredibly bleak, the spooky sounds and toss-em-up vibes added to these songs do change the dynamic greatly. James Plotkin’s remix of “Out of The Furrow” retains the bleak, doom-y, gothic feel of the original song, adding in spooky Pink Floyd-esque sounds to sparkle it up. Koichi Shimizu’s “Accidentagram (Actified Mix)” gets a zoomy treatment, with a bit of spacey dance floor action, but not too much. Kiat gives “Catacombs (Chamber Mix)” the spooky, angelic choral treatment and some heavy drums. elintseeker’s remix of “Insomnia” is shimmering and sweet, like Tangerine Dream shoegazerism… even more minimal than the original, but in a non-bleak way… spooky. The Analog Girl’s “Headworm (Vapours Rising Remix)” gets bleepy and blurpy with new beats and electronic boops and female vocals zooming in to complement vocalist Leslie Low’s spooky drone. Former Observatory member Evan Tan’s remix of “The Argument (Hard Truth Remix)” is a silent, spooky affair, with plenty of strange noises popping around, but also lots of phases and development. This is actually the most dynamic song on the regular album (lively-bleak-lively), and his version makes it even livelier, adding in wild guitar, galloping keyboard parts, and all sorts of other nuttiness. This is not the Observatory we know! Observatory side-project collaborator and scene buddy X’Ho (Chris Ho) also takes his “Anger & Futility (DJ Mentor’s Beijing Fireworks Rmx)” into fairly radical directions – it starts off the way the original starts off, but then gets layered with other stuff – groovy beats, distorted vocals, sexy moaning, Ministry distorto-vocals, airport echoes, and ends as the original does. Lasse Marhaug’s version of “Ends to No Means” is by far the longest treatment of any remixer, and at over 16 minutes this piece takes up a whole album side (if you have the vinyl). It starts off sounding like the original, but then gets progressively mixed-up, with both burbling and repetitive sounds to provide contrast. The song remains two layers of noise consistently throughout, but slows down after about 10 minutes. The song is not very dynamic in terms of song development, but it is fun, and it is a radical re-invention of the source music into waves. Xhin’s “Out of The Furrow” starts off with spooky vocals and a new piano track, stripping away the repetitive beats of the original, glooming on further way out there. George Chua’s “Accidentagram (Martyrs’ Blood)” also focuses on Leslie’s vocals, at least at the beginning, with noises dancing in and out. Lots of broken sounds here, very experimental, even by this album’s standards. This is also a very long track at nearly 10 minutes in length. It builds it up with background noises and nutty drumming and percussion. Very strange… but cool! VAVABOND’s “One-dimensional One” is bloopy-bleepy noisy, and all sorts of odd sounds, groaningly slow vocals, and a zillion textures.
The Observatory, Catacombs - The album was released in early 2012 to pre-orders, those who bought in could download the demos of the songs. Cool! I have a bunch of other Observatory albums, and they’re always a dark, twisted treat. When my CD arrived, I was a little disappointed with the packaging – apparently it had been done in some sort of disappearing printing process, but with an 18cm x 18cm folder to house the regular-sized CD, I wondered why they made it look like I was getting an old vinyl single.
The album is suffused in deep melancholia, of course, broody atmospherics that the Observatory does so well, and weird, angular sounds. The first song, “Peace And Quiet”, is merely two chords, spaced out over the 0:26 track, then “Headworm” gets started with crazy sounds, until Leslie Low’s dark Peter Murphy-like voice comes in. The title track has a lot more life, with a crazy, dark, distorted riff, and wild, wilful percussion. “Ends To No Means” burbles along with electronics, and another riff similar to that of “Catacombs”, bomping and bomping with strange layers and layers of sound sound sound, then zooming Sonic Youth clattering guitar solo. Love it. “The Argument” is also based on a cool, simple riff that combines distorted guitar and electronic, it almost sounds new wave, albeit in a sorta Peter Murphy-ish way. It ends as a somber, melancholic piano dirge. “Accidentagram”, one of the few songs that is quite a bit shorter than its demo, which is strange, because it is ambitious – it starts off with a bit of vocally-focussed burbling and meandering, before kicking out the jams with some nutty electronics and noise after 1:40, just grooving on and on and on and on… two rounds of that and it’s a song. “Insomnia” gets started quickly with a gloomy bass riff that’s very attractive nonetheless, sweet singing; it’s chilled and mellow throughout, with clock-y arrangements. Ooooooooohhhhhhh….! “One-Dimensional One” is all doom-y voices and drums, with a bit of scratchy noise. Dark, spooky, majestic, driving on and on and on and on and on! If any of the other songs were dark, “Out Of The Furrow” out-darks them all with a spooky horror soundtrack intro (is this a scary metal prelude for a song that never comes?), and then strange near-Talk Talk-ish dark pop song. “Anger And Futility”, rounding out the release, is sad-sounding, but not very dark, a very quiet song that sings out “let it die…” Strange melodica songs going on there too, the song ends with some Merzbow noisy scratching. Nice.
Dark Folke – A nearly drumless album of quirky post-rock songs sung with Leslie Low’s sombre Nick Drake-like voice and pleasant folk guitar fingerpickings, accompanied by odd keyboard sounds, the occasional Powerbook throb, drums in intense moments, female vocals, angular guitarism, and other arcane effects that mirror the dark pencil sketches of Justin Barlett that adorn the CD booklet packaging – Barlett has provided illustration for releases by Sunn 0))) and other Southern Lord bands. The Observatory, Sonic Youth-like, has experimented with each album, seeking different sounds, and this one is possibly inspired by a closer alignment with experimental-minded musicians of a more international variety. It is interesting, challenging music that deserves repeated playings. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a bit of Mark Hollis from Talk Talk’s more arcane moments, and maybe there’s a dash or two of Merzbow. The release starts off with the groovy cords of “Omicron” and some spooky sound effects, then some jazz guitar, before you hear a bit of quirky Richard Wright-like keyboards (“Echoes”), some strange Indian sound effects and some Talk Talk-like standup double bass and creaky guitar sounds, as well as funky percussion. Strangely, although the booklet has lyrics to this song, none are heard throughout the track (there’s a note at the bottom that says “unspoken”). “A Shuffler in the Mud” has groovy Star Trek keyboards to accompany the sparse acoustic song with the multi-tracked vocals. Whistling, distorted guitars, e-bow sounds, and a peculiar catharsis. “Blood Rising” starts off with intense, angular guitar sounds (including bowed guitar), and then picks up into a crazy head banging moment with carny-like keyboard moments. And yet, somehow, there’s something Sufjan Stevens about it all. “Ephemeron” starts off with Nick Drake-like fingerpicking and piano moments, then moves off in sweet ways that are floating, ghostly. One of the more beautiful moments is “Incastrate”, when keboardist Vivian Wang steps up for her turn at the mic; but, rather than repeating the half-hearted Bjorkisms of songs like “How’s Life” from the band’s upbeat 2004 debut “Time of Rebirth”, she goes for a bathos-drenched Kahimi Karie from her darkest Momus moments. The song is full of more of those weird carny keyboards and is drenched in angular guitars. “Invisible Room” starts off mellow, hippy, New Age, chanting, droning, before building up with the angular guitars, standup double bass, and a lot of “woo woo ooo.” “Lowdown” is the longest song on the CD, at 8:11, it starts off with burbles and noise and drones, building up into hippy vocals and then noisy droning with slashing cords and wicked bleeps and bloops and guitar sqruonk – this is as intense as The Observatory gets (when they’re not doing “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, that is). “The Boring” starts out with flute-like keyboards, a bit of mellow guitar, then becomes a regular Leslie Low song. “Decarn” has strange angular guitar sounds and B-movie keyboards, as well as heavy riffs and UFO sounds, it is an intense bit of music. The progressions are almost Metallica-ish, with screams and groans, not to mention the heavenly angel interlude (according to the lyrics sheet, there are no lyrics – it’s an instrumental). “Mind Roots” is spacy and airy, with guitar and voice and some keyboards that swirly like heavenly angels, the song groans in and out. Watch out for this band and, if you’re lucky, try to catch one of their rare live performances.
The Observatory live
August 16h, 2014 – Oscilla launch, Substation – I was so excited to attend the Oscilla launch live show in Singapore on August 16th. My friend Tony was supposed to come, but in the end couldn’t make it, so I went with the stellar Kash Singh. The Observatory kicked out the jams in every way imaginable – the show stunned and stunned… it was simply an all-out assault on the senses, with superb sound, light and vision. The musicians were in top form, laser-beam focussed, and very hot. I didn’t take any video, so I hope that the photos below can do justice to the amazing onslaught that we beheld in person.
June 9th, 2013 – The Observatory played at a cool installation at Gardens By The Bay. The music was fairly electronic, with some unusual percussion. It was very space-y. Rock ‘n’ roll!!
Here’s the awesome poster that the band designed for the gig:
Here are some pics from the day.
The Observatory. Sky Tree Grove. Gardens By The Bay.
The Observatory. Sky Tree Grove. Gardens By The Bay.
My shoes: The Observatory. Sky Tree Grove. Gardens By The Bay.
Sky Tree Grove. Gardens By The Bay.
Sky Tree Grove. Gardens By The Bay.
December 11th, 2010 – I went to the National Museum of Singapore tonight to catch an incredible event – it was the screening of “A Page of Madness” (狂った一頁, or kuru’ta i’peiji), a Japanese silent film from 1926. The screening was accompanied by live music performed by The Observatory, one of Singapore’s coolest bands.
The film is based on a story by Kawabata Yasunari, the Nobel Prize-winning author, and is about a retired sailor who takes a job as a janitor to look after his wife, who was institutionalised after trying to drown their child. It takes the point of view of the insane at many moments, and you see all sorts of crazy antics. There were two climactic scenes in the film, one when the patients broke loose and began terrorizing the place, and another time when the sailor himself went berserk.
While the movie is difficult to follow, as there are no intercards for dialogue or context, it is full of all sorts of amazing images and visual effects – superimpositions, flashbacks, rapid montage, and complex camerawork all recreate the world of the insane. There is a beautiful female dancer, there is the sailor’s wife who is somehow elegant in her madness, there is a young boy, a young lady in her kimono, a middle-aged doctor who looks a bit constipated, a western doctor, a flapper who dances incessantly (although sometimes she lies on the floor and pretends to be a dog – “barking mad”), interesting-looking bearded and moustachioed men, and there is a trio of madmen who move in strange mechanical/kabuki gestures. There is also odd social commentary at the end – when the lunatics put on their masks, they become happy and normal again. I started my camera at two points where the film looked like it was getting interesting, and I was lucky – I caught some cool parts of the film with some great music.
I was fascinated with the “font” that was used to write the title and the names of the actors and other staff. It was nearly indecipherable. The “終‚” that you see at the end, as you see at the end of nearly all Japanese films, was made out of lights and very hard to recognise. Even the opening and closing credits were a great work of art.
The venue was a mid-sized theatre, and I was lucky to find a front row seat, even though I was not early. I got to sit close to the band, which included two guitarists, a percussionist/drummer/bassist, and two people on electronics (one an iBook expert, another a black box knob-twister – her table, and the floor in front of the guitarists, was littered with pedals and boxes of all sorts). When the evening started, the lights went off, the band walked in dressed in black with their white kabuki masks on, and then low, ambient noise kicked in. After a minute or two the film started. All throughout, the music was odd and atmospheric, quiet and subdued, but often rising to exciting, chaotic crescendoes when the film called for it. The band recorded the gig, I hope that they release it as well. A DVD version of the film with The Observatory’s soundtrack should be released as a film.
Here are some pictures and video clips of the evening:
狂った一頁 with The Observatory 1
狂った一頁 with The Observatory 2
狂った一頁 with The Observatory 3
September 19th, 2009 – This Observatory live performance was at the theatres of the National University of Singapore, making it my first reason to go to NUS since I’ve came to Singapore in 2003. Nice place. The evening concert was happening at the same time as a dance recital, and there were plenty of merry young men prancing about being happy. I was there early, so I bought two CDs from the merchandise stand and then had a beer as I sampled my wares. The show started at 8:00 with the five-man math rock wonders M-Quartet (the band actually has six members – one of them was absent). Nice guitar sounds, and a very intense lead singer. There was a 30-minute intermission from 8:30 to 9:00, and then The Observatory came out. My friend Flo was so excited, she identified all of the members in awe, and the band proceeded to play huddled and seated in a half-circle. I’d never heard any of the full albums before, and I’d barely listened to their music at all, so it was all new. Leslie played an acoustic guitar, sometimes an electric, and sang. Vivian Wang played a keyboard/organ and sang one number (and super subtle backups on others). Evan Tan played a Powerbook, and occasionally also hit on a single drum when there was a bit of percussion. Dharma played two electric guitars, sometimes planted on the stage and sometimes shaved with a violin bow. Victor Low played a gigantic, gorgeous, phat stand-up double bass. While some songs were angular and sparse, I was most intrigued when thick, heavy sounds came in, be they distorted cords or the result of twisting a knob on a guitar effects pedal. Not to discount the band’s original music, which I am now getting to know, but I really perked up when they played two brilliant covers – one was Nick Drake’s “The River Man” and The Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun.” While both were faithful to the originals, I really felt that the Pink Floyd song was a stunner, adding stuff that wasn’t in the original, including guitar improvisations and some heavy intensity in the middle. Good job, guys!! I went out, got autographs from the band when I found where they were hanging out, chatted with them for a while about bands we like such as a bunch on the Southern Lord label (Leslie was wearing a Burning Witch t-shirt), then took the last bus home. Of course, the first thing I did was find them on MySpace, add them as friends, and listen to their CDs all night, hearing things that reminded me of what I experienced onstage. Usually I will hear a band’s new album before I go see them, but this time it was interesting to do it the other way around, especially for a band that I admire and am growing to enjoy in a somewhat intimate way (through the ears).
Here is a very mellow version of what I saw:
ARCN TEMPL, “Emanations of a New World” – This is something that Leslie Low and Vivian Wang of The Observatory have cooked up. It was released in May 2010 on a drone and noise label called Utech from the US. There was very little press on it at the time in Singapore, where The Observatory probably has its biggest fan base, but it seems like it’s been quietly winning people over. The cover is a photo of military brass from the army of the Monkey King, as part of an exhibit at Tiger Balm Gardens (Haw Par Villa) in Singapore, and the essay inside is about the beauty, malaise, and nostalgia of Singapore’s hidden tourist attraction. There are two very nice pictures of a young Leslie and a young Vivian, both around four years old, with their moms at the place. Leslie is especially precious with a t-shirt that says “Leslie” across the chest, with a picture of a bunny (or something). How amazing; it makes me want to dig up my own pictures of my first visit to Singapore in 1985 when I was 16 (I grew up in Canada, so I wasn’t able to visit this wonderful place as a four-year-old on an outing with my mom). The CD seems very “Chinese”, with its cover full of ideograms, and its titles dragging up concepts from Chinese mythology and spiritualism, which is a bit different from other Leslie Low/Observatory stuff. One enthusiastic friend told me that “The songs remind me of Debussy actually. The sheerness of texture matched with very oriental-ness.” The first song, “Innocence and Ignorance” is like a lost track from the Betty Blue soundtrack, with seashore sounds, guitar arpeggios and some xylophone-like sounds, thumb cymbals, and accordion-like sounds. Pure meditation. I love music like this so much. The second track, “Three Realms” is weird and spooky, lush and layered, with freaky atmospherics, as well as a later passage of bright and bold accordion sounds. There are ambient sounds at the end of the track. “Wandering in an Empty Forest” starts off with Tangerine Dream-like keyboard swirls, adding in a repetitive acoustic theme. The guitar drones on and changes subtly, and then the keyboard shifts too; every sound is shifty, the keyboard more so. It’s an interplay. The guitar phases out, and the Tangerine Dream keyboards stay behind to build a strong mood and gorgeous zone-out. Wow. “Four Rivers of Melancholy”, the longest track on the CD, starts off with frantic flamenco guitar that is eternally groovy, which becomes bizarrely ambient, before breaking into wistful Leslie Low vocal atmospherics. The flamenco continues endless, but with added weirdo noises. Then there’s a carnival bit that goes crazy. “Eighteen Steps of Evil” is spooky and industrial, with a freaky electronic vibe, sauntering percussion, and then also some freaked-out guitar plonkings. There’s a lot happening here, and it’s all good, even the weird freaky ambient sounds at the end that raise tension tremendously. “The Looming of Nothing” is sombre and quiet, with bells and guitar. It’s the shortest track on the release. “Dread Mountain” starts off with spooky organ, then gets into scratchy, slow guitar chipping and odd little percussion bits (tambourine). Throw in the odd horn blast and ambient noise, and it’s a song that dredges up the deepest parts of Mark Hollis’ psyche as it dissolves momentarily into chaos, then recovers its step with some nice flute. “A Thousand Arms of Mercy” starts off with a man rambling in Cantonese, then gets into spacey organ and spare acoustic guitar plonking, which then picks up into a real song, with piano repetitions and cool guitar interplay.
The Humpback Oak “Oaksongs” box
Inside the Humpback Oak “Oaksongs” box
The four CDs inside the Humpback Oak “Oaksongs” box and their packaging.
More stuff that is inside the Humpback Oak “Oaksongs” box.
Humpback Oak, “Oakbox”: I’m a fan of career retrospective sets, and this is one of the best I’ve seen for a band with such a limited output (of course, nothing beats the Neil Young Archive series, or the Sandy Denny Box, but those are both in a different league, and from major record labels to boot). It is a black box, made to look like it’s worn and torn, and when you open it up you see a room, with its ceiling fan, its four walls (with posters of Neil Young, CSNY, and the Hypgnosis Dark Side of the Moon poster that came with the early releases of the LP and shows the pyramids at Giza), and of course its bed – with Sony walkman, which was used to record many of the band’s early demos, in plain sight – where it seems that most of the Humpback Oak songs got written; surprising, however, considering that it is a musical retrospective, is the lack of visible CDs, booklets, liner notes or other stuff. That secret is soon revealed, however, for a bit of digging around shows that these valuable contents are buried underneath the false “floor” of the “room”, and soon we find four CDs wrapped in paper; then we also open up the matchbox-sized “bed” to find four mini books of lyrics, a guitar pick, and a bundle of personal notes about the band. Simply… amazing!! And, after popping the CDs into my computer, I took a look on the internet to figure out how to re-fold the paper folders for the CDs that came with the set (The Observatory has put up an instruction video on YouTube just in case you get lost).
The contents of the “bed”, with its Ikea patterned bedsheets, are four booklets (one for each CD), a wad of paper tied up with a hemp rope, a 0.46mm pick that says “oak songs”, and four photos. One of them is a black and white pic of the band walking along railroad tracks, it is a bit blurry; there are three colour pics, one a mid-distance shot of the band lining a sidewalk, another of the band squatting in the garden, and a final one of their heads arranged in a cluster somehow, with a schooner mast in the background. There’s also a letter to “Dear XXX”, which reveals that the idea for a box set came from years of email requests from fans, who wanted copies of the albums, which had gone out of print. Errr… maybe I should just reprint it all here:
The idea for a box set came about after years of email requests from fans who wanted copies of our album releases, then already out of print. In time, I was rummaging through my store-room and uncovered so many things – old cassette recordings, demos, lots of photos, radio interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, even mouldy S-VHS tapes I doubt would still play today. Three years ago and with much hesitation, I began this tedious and emotional process of excavating old shit and archiving them. Bought a cheap scanner and dumped all the photos onto the computer. I digitized old recordings that I found interesting and thought fans would too. After many months I handed a bunch of rare tracks for mastering to Justin Seah, whose valuable input eventually became Rarities, the enhanced CD in Oaksongs. He also remastered “Ghostfather”, sonically the least consistent of the lot. Somewhere along the line, I felt it was necessary to include our early indie cassette releases, all three of them. And, boy, was it difficult to track them down. Thanks, luckily, to Chang Kang for his copy of Moths & Bagpipes. Vincent managed to unearth two old CD-Rs containing our first two cassette albums, already digitized and given to us by Joe Ng many years ago, I vaguely remember. Thanks also to Patrick Chng & Ben Harrison for pointing me in the right direction and providing necessary info on things long forgotten. The cassette albums & some live recordings have been included in the enhanced section of Rarities. The next step was the design. The concept was thought up by Pann (Concave Scream) from Kinetic. He wanted to show all the little details – the handwritten lyric sheets, press pix, gig photos, and do it in such a way that would involve the listener in this uncovering process. We agreed it’d be fun to put the listener right there in our bedrooms where many songs were written, rehearsed and recorded, along with the mischief that teenagers get up to. That’s how we remember those days. And this bedroom in your hands is a visual representation of Humpback Oak’s consciousness and probably yours too. Thanks to Sean (Concave Scream) who originally designed the first Oak website, Felons United. That was a mammoth undertaking. Pity the band broke up shortly thereafter. And we never made that double album with Concave. Anyway, he is back to help up on our memorial site. For the occasional lazy afternoon reminiscing, or if you suffer from insomnia, stop by www.humpbackoak.net. Thank you to all whom we’ve met during this hazy period of our lives. Thanks for the memories, good and bad.
Leslie, on behalf of Humpback Oak
PS Special thanks to a few good people who have sonically and visually documented our ‘musical’ journey. Some of you were hard to locate, othes we have trouble recalling, but we’d like to thank all of you Frank Lee Shah Tahir Randolf Arriola Avril Peh Li Fen Fen Adrian Tan Aung Mying Kyaw Ho Keen Fi
Bound in hemp string is a clutch of 12 small 8.5cm x 12cm sheets of paper, double-sided and made to look like vari-coloured notebook sheets or foolscap, with varied head stock, like “St. Joseph’s Institution” and Familie Schunke’s “Waldhaus Reinbek” in Reinbek (near Hamburg, Germany). The parts are broken down to “The Context”, “The Music”, “The Band”, “The Approach”, “The Friends”, “Notes on Rarities 1991-1996″, “Timeline”, a random sheet of lyrics, and various band memoirs and testimonials. The set seems to include the writing of six authors, and the notes reproduce what appears to be the authors’ original handwriting (in miniature, of course). Band members Leslie Low, Stanley Teo and Daniel Wee (a.k.a. Asid) provide words, as does Lim Cheng Tju, X’Ho, and one unidentified writer of an unsigned report (perhaps band member Vincent Chin?). Lim Cheng Tju’s “The Context” starts off the pack, writing about perestroika, glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, etc (yeah yeah, I was there too). In Singapore, there was fear of the communist insurgency led by Catholics and social workers, and I suppose this meant something to the Humpback Oak boys, who were (are?) all Catholic and went to Catholic schools, and there’s also a word about the brief resurgence of opposition politicians during the Lee Kuan Yew handover to Goh Chock Tong. Some pretentious mention of Francis “End of History” Fukuyama and Samuel “Clash of Civilisations” Huntington. The Asian Financial Crisis, Singapore’s booming economy, cheap holidays in Bangkok after the collapse of the baht, all are described, as well as the burst of the dotcom bubble. Lim continues with “The Music”, talking about the rise of indie music in Singapore, with bands like the Oddfellows emerging, and he references secret gigs at Marine Parade and the Botanic Garden, and talks about the vulnerability of Humpback Oak and the friendship of the kids who were born in 1972. He closes with the words “For those of you who are listening to these songs for the first time, I envy you. I hope they will mean as much to you as they did for me.” In “The Band”, Daniel Wee talks about a weekend party when a bunch of kids who were inspired by Echo and the Bunneymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Jesus and Mary Chain got together; and the events preceded by chatting with “bus buddy” Vincent Chan; and the party organised by David Yeoh, “the man who couldn’t sing, but never gave a fuck” and singing anyway, about stupid things like dolphins; and to hear Daniel tell the tale, you’d think that this was the starting point of the band. And maybe it was. Leslie then puts in an untitled piece about the songwriting and practicing process, describing how they got to recording acoustic tracks in his bedroom (or Vincent’s living room), using a tambourine and drumsticks in the absence of a drumkit if they had to, and how they got to recording electric tracks. A bit of history here: they sold the cassettes that they produced out of the now-defunct Skoob Books at Bras Basah Complex and Dada Records in Funan Centre. The first album exposed them to professional recording practices, at a time when the young men were particularly challenged by their schedules – either in school, in the armed forces, or studying abroad. Produced by Reggie Verghese, former lead guitarist of the Quests, a veteran local band from the ’60s, at his studio in Serangoon Gardens, the rhythm section was deemed too “loose-limbed, pitchy and raw”, and sessions musicians were used in their place (?!?!). Leslie admits that “our debut album made us sound better than we actually were.” Huh! Daniel, studying in Australia for three years, missed most of these sessions, as did Stanley, who was doing army duty. Leslie notes that it was this time that they started to play with alternate tunings, such as on “No Finer Time To Be Alive” (EADGBB), and “Deep Door Down” (GGDDBB). With Daniel away, the band was a three-piece with Leslie (second guitarist) on drums, Stanley (the drummer) on bass and guitarist Vince doing his regular duty on guitar, and it is in this formation that some tracks on the Rarities disc such as “Medium” and “Eject” were recorded with. Some of the Rarities songs were recorded by third-year students during Leslie’s days at Ngee Ann Polytechnic when he was a first- or second-year student. But then again, later on he also recorded the band’s second album “Ghostfather” there as a school project (the experience is bittersweet – Leslie cites Ghostfather as a fine example of “bad drum sound”). Leslie cites some of the technology that they used back then, and studio recording processes; he also explains that the first side of the band’s third album “Side A Side B” was rush-recorded by himself solo when he was presented with a block of un-booked studio time while the other guys were unavailable. “This would fuel the tension and unhappiness that was already brewing since Pain-Stained Morning” he says for the record, which he admits was “a fault on my part.” Sad. He calls Side A of “Side A Side B” “‘studio’ songs enhanced during the mixing process with outboard effects.” The band had a hand in crafting Side B of “Side A Side B”, and he calls it “a very happy collaborative experience that was missing since our ealy cassette days.” “In my mind, Side B is the real Humpback Oak. Unfortunately, it took so long to surface.” Right. A three-page untitled piece by Stanley on the Waldhaus Reinbek stationery talks about the moods and feelings of making music, with some thought about emotions, and performing, and being asked to be happier and look cheerful in televised performances, forced emotions. Okay… “If Robert Allen Zimmerman killed pop music by giving it brains, Humpback Oak could have buried it by tempting it to think.” Okay… An unsigned piece on “The Approach” (by Vincent?) starts off with “I was approached by Leslie to write about my perspective on the band, anything on the band at all, no holds barred.” Okay, so what he mentions is that there was “boredom, verbal fights, deceit, distrusts, threats and jealousy.” Wow! “Obviously, I still don’t know what to write about.” Okay, now there’s no doubt that it’s written by Vincent, who describes Humpback Oak as “a certain intriguing activity that Les, Acid, Stan and myself participated together for almost 12 years.” Victor goes the furthest back, admitting that he and Leslie were friends at the age of 14, already sharing the same taste in music (“Duran Duran, Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, Alphaville and other ‘romantics’”), while also attempting “DJ-ing” (?!?!?). But he notes that Acid, however, was already into The The, That Petrol Emotion, U2 and REM. Cool. Vincent does a great job of painting a picture, and in some ways he’s the most gifted writer of the bunch. After a great deal of noodling and quasi-psychedelic setup, he gives us the goods nearly at the end: “The early days were totally laid back. We would gather and sit at Leslie’s house to listen to music, trade guitar tips and to to play a few Dylan, Beatles, and U2 songs.” The final piece is by X’Ho, a.k.a. Chris Ho, a radio host and author and generally tattooed and pierced Singapore hipster dude. Tough guy though he may be, he gets emotional writing about Humpback Oak, starting with a memory of Leslie’s press event for the release of his second solo release “Worm” in 2006; he’s the man, admitting that he’d never seen Humpback Oak live, preferring the recordings, for whatever excuse, especially songs like “Daddy In A Lift” and “No Finer Time To Be Alive” (he recounts the tale similarly in the Observatory documentary). As a bookend to the set, there are notes on the Rarities disc, and a timeline, both by Leslie. The Rarities notes go song-by-song, and of note is the point about “Normanton Park”, which is a song that should have been on the band’s Ghostfather release but had “timing issues” (he re-recorded it as “Portsdown Road” for the Triangular release in 2010). Leslie wrote about the place he lived (where a lot of the Humpback Oak songs were recorded, I suppose) at a time when they had to downgrade their living accommodations. For “No Finer Time To Be Alive” he notes the taxi honks and kids playing downstairs (in some of them you hear the band snickering as an overhead jet plane mars the recording – they soldier on). The “Ghostfather” demo is the band’s first experiment with a faster tempo, Leslie notes that the pager going off during the vocal take is his (I’ve listened to it a few times, and I can’t hear it). Leslie notes that “Cucumber” was written in 1989/1990 and he recorded it in school: “Not really a Humpback song, but it was from that period and could have been one.” Most of the notes on this page are archival, mentioning recording in the sense of when and where and who played what. The timeline note is important, it says:
1988 – The idea of Humpback Oak was formed between Daniel, Vincent & Leslie
1989 – First year in college. Daniel and Leslie were in the same college while Vincent was in the polytechnic. Started jamming and performing at school gigs playing cover versions of popular songs. There was Simon Cheong on guitar and Charles Cheo on lead vocals during the early days. Leslie and Simon would also join up with Don Bosco to form Twang Bar Kings the same year.
1990 – Second year in college. More jamming. Stanley joins the band. Carles & Simon leaves.
1991 – Mojo Sessions was released in June. The Songs Will Always Be There… was released in October.
1992 – In February, Chris Ho features the band in his Straits Times’ Pop Life column after hearing the band’s first two demos. Moths & Bagpipes was released in June. Jimmy Wee of Pony Canyon signs the band with the help of Chris Ho.
1993 – Recordings for first album began and continued sporadically throughout the year. Finer Life and Fear included on Pony Canyon compilation Red, Hot and Skin.
1994 – Pain-Stained Morning was released in June.
1995 – Received the Perfect Ten awards for Favourite Local Act and Critics’ Choice in February.
1996 – Ghostfather recordings began in September.
1997 – Ghostfather recordings continued in January. Ghostfather was completed in March. In August, Side A was recorded. Ghostfather released in October.
1998 – Mixed Side A around August. Recorded Side B in September
1999 – Side A Side B was released in April.
2000 – Limbo.
2001 – End of the year, Humpback Oak breaks up.
2007 – Humpback Oak reunites to play the Rock for Wayne concert in memory of Wayne Thunder of The Suns.
The final page of the booklet shows a two-sided page of lyrics; the front page of mine shows “Like a Dove” by The Disciples (with what looks like a picture of the imagined album cover), and “Wishes of the Imagination” on the reverse side. Booklet credits at the bottom of the page.
The first CD is the 14 songs that make up Pain Stained Morning, the first Humpback Oak release of 1994. The first song “Void” comes up, and it sounds very much like strummin’ REM, and Leslie’s voice sounds a lot like Michael Stipe’s here. “Void” is a bit dull-ish; better by far is “Deep Door Down”, which jangles and grooves, and “Lucifer”, which has some sophisticated songwriting, spooky symbolism, great melodies, and a gutsy solo. “Finer Life” is a bit sweet, but has great production. “Cretin 1″ (and, later on, “Cretin 2″) is a 30-second fragments of songs, sung in a very broad American voice, that isn’t really that interesting. “Swan Song” is a fine guitar pop song, “Fear” has a strong Cat Stevens feel to it, while “Circling Square” is sweetly acoustic. “Web” is crunchy and distorted, with great guitar interplay, and funky droning lyrics. “Lower Girl” is a choppy rocker that owes a bit to Tom Petty, maybe, and it’s smooth and funky, with swift basslines. The fleeting “Father Floyd” does that groovy folk gathering/Bob Dylan thing, while “Crow” is a beautiful, moody tune that swings and sways with funky Cure-like plucking grooves, and goes out with a whisp of the James Bond theme. Righteous! Final track “Bull” is a great old scorcher of a rock song that starts off with funky guitar sounds, and then great verses, before it smashes out into a very big chorus and some cool guitar soloing and other inventiveness; that goes out with some stoned mutterings, like what you’d find on Led Zeppelin III, and there’s a long acoustic refrain (or is it a unique song?). Either way, it’s a great track, and a great closer. The first album is generally bright, cheerful, but also a bit basic in its production values.
Disc two, the band’s second release Ghostfather, from 1997, starts off with wanky backwards stuff a la the Stone Roses, called “Dream Country One” (there’s also a “Dream Country Two” later on); this first “song” is only half a minute long or so, but the second one goes on for an unbearable 3:30; the band didn’t stop their experimentation,and “Ghost” is another backwards piece, but at least it’s only 1:13; (note: the full forward “Dream Country” is to be found on this box’s Rarities disc, although I’m not sure what became of the original “Ghost”). The first real song is “Scared Scarred”, a full and mature song with great Leslie Low lyrics, some acoustic guitar, and spare drumming. Wow! “Christ In Black” is smooth, acoustic with prominent Leslie Low vocals, that goes through a verse before the slight drumming comes in, and it builds up in to a rock song. “Balm” is more of a rocker, while “Home” is a nice, steady groovy little number about the Singaporean dream – sombre, smooth, jazzy, with a bit of dissonance and some moaning – “No country can hold me.” The solo is intertwining and effortless. Beautiful. “If I Go Wrong” is a Beatles-like rocker of sorts, or something else – it has lots of “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaa”s in it. “I Am A Jug” has funky organ, with the usual acoustic pluckings and some great, lazy singing. “If I Am Weak” is even sparser, starting out with just ukelele-like guitar and vocal, but like all the others it eventually gets going into a more Talk Talk-like production, with snazzy drums, swirling organ and all sorts of other adornments, including ambient noise. Wow! “Curse” starts off with crunch acoustics and some sense of dread, the verses begin quickly, and then we are swiftly treated to a flute solo! “Stressed Out” has a country feel to it that sort of meanders, while “Bridge” has a sort of acoustic-goth feel to it. “Ghostfather” starts off as a sort of country/Neil Young tune; it’s one of Leslie Low’s most personal songs and addresses the death of his father. “I live with my mother/ I live with my ghost… father.” Wow; again… wow. The passages are pure Neil Young, in Leslie’s unique voice, and very powerful. “Drop of Soul” is groovy folk with a spark, while “Oh The Load Heavy Don’t Float” is very lo-fi country strumming and singing. Oh, and it also spurts into big old country rock explosions. Jeff Buckley? Fantastic stuff. Final track “Pain” is the longest on the album, it’s a regular and sweet acoustic track that plinks and plonks a meandering path across the end of the album, it’s strong and confident and represents the musicians we now know.
The third disc, which represents the Side A Side B release of 1998, seems to be very playful, experimenting with several techniques, and in some ways anticipating the sounds of The Observatory, Leslie’s next band. The first half was more or less the solo sounds of Leslie, as he recorded it when a batch of studio time became available but the rest of Humpback Oak were not, meaning that only the second half of the disc was a full band project. The CD starts off with “Kingdom” (Leslie seems to like single-word titles: void, lucifer, fear, web, crow, cretin, bull, balm, home, curse, bridge, ghost, pain, eject), a very Jeff Buckley song, with its elastic howling and strange beat changes, heavy use of the acoustic guitar, and lots of zany drumming that hits into fits and starts. Yeah! “Judas and I” has American accents on the vocals, but the vocal manipulation is sweet and spooky, as is the echoey vocalizing on a beautiful song full of powerful lyrics. “The Mist” is strumming folk with weird vocal noise effects and scary female vocals. “Game For Blues” is simple, sweet and gloomy with weird electronic swirls, while “One Hell of a Country” chugs along with a rapping lilt and sarcastic lyrics over acid acoustic guitar strumming. “The Last Homegrown Lost Boy” is another sweet wailer, with Leslie using his voice well to surge and swell; the song is augmented with echoes and noise, strings and other strange effects, with backwards lyrics rounding it off. “Interlude: Lost Boy or Girl” starts off like a real song, upbeat and swingy, but then dissolves into a weird tape slowdown trick – too bad, it sounded like it was shaping into a nice song, but quickly becomes a one-star studio experiment. They quickly do it right with the next song, “Lost Boy or Girl”, which shortens the musical introduction to the song to 15 seconds, rather than 50 seconds like the chopped-up “interlude” version. The song is jazzy and jumpy, and ends with a slew of la-la-la-las. Nice. “The Recycler” is rather electrical, opening up with a semi-rock feel and big electric guitar chords as well as some quiet-loud dynamics, it is the most “standard Humpback Oak” track on Side A Side B. “Technohuman” is the first real rocker of the release (and when did Humpback Oak do rock?), starting off with moody guitar sounds, washed-out guitar chords that chug along punk-like, then zooms into big rock sound with a full-on drum beat, chopped up from time to time with quiet Leslie Low vocal bridges. “Modelcitizen” is even punkier – it starts off with sweet keyboard swells, then gets into regular moods singing and electric swing, before zooming up into near-punk territory, with a jazzy bridge. This song has everything, folks! It goes out with a lot of noise and other freakouts. “I would like to be sexual” and “Sure, I like to be sexual.” “Any Last Words” starts off nice and quiet and sweet, it’s a long, slow soul healer. “One Big Happy Family” is a grungy rocker with big, fat sounds (very big, very fat), but also the requisite “quiet verse” for Leslie’s voice. I guess Leslie doesn’t like to compete with electric guitars. The last 2:45 of the 7:00 song is a weird zone-out, with strange guitar shifts, backwards singing and swirly distrortion, and a sweet little acoustic demo stapled on to the end.
The fourth and final CD is a disc of rarities, with 11 songs, eight of which are unique to the disc, with the only repeats being a demo for “Ghostfather” from 1996, “No Finer Time To Be Alive 1991″ (being an early version of 1994′s “Finer Life”), and something called “Dream Country 1996″, which is the original source material for “Dream Country 1″ and Dream Country 2″, backwards songs which appears on the “Ghostfather” release of 1997. The band put out albums in 1994, 1997 and 1998, and of the songs here, three are from 1991, one is from 1993, and seven of them are from 1996. “Normanton Park 1996″, which starts off the set, is a very nice, simple electric folk tune that sort of has a lot of emphasis on Leslie’s great voice – not sure why it was left off of the band’s later releases. Too simple, perhaps? The next three songs are from 1991 and all sound like they were recorded at the same live session, with Leslie’s acoustic guitar and voice accompanied by another acoustic guitar and some male backup voices. “No Finer Time To Be Alive 1991 (early version of Finer Life)” is from the band’s 1994 debut, this time done with Leslie’s voice and an acoustic guitar, it was recorded at a live performance and you can hear the voices of kids playing nearby. “To Run 1991″ is a jaunty song that sweeps along happily, “Bury Bury 1991″ is another acoustic folk song that is not wholly engaging, with Leslie’s vocals going down deep. “Trip To My Neighborhood 1993″ is full song that is Beatles-esque (or maybe it Teenage Fanclub-esque) with full-fledged production and sweet melodies with a hard guitar sound. “Dream Country 1996″ is hard, grungy and nasal, with dramatic chord progressions. It’s loud and sloppy and good fun. Much better, anyway, than the two backwards “versions” of the song that appear on the band’s second album “Ghostfather” of 1997, which are full of studio manipulation and you can’t make hide nor hair of them. “Ghostfather (Demo) 1996″ sounds very much like the album version, but is shorter and maybe a bit rougher. “Medium 1996″ is an upbeat song with jangly guitars that shoves along at a good pace and has a slight bit of a Sonic Youth jangling dissonance to it in parts. “Eject 1996″ is a jangling rocker with a full band that growls with a bit of goth or new wave gloom, and none of that Humpback Oak sunshine. “Summer Island 1996″ is a breezy beach rocker with surf-like guitars and a strong bass line, it’s good fun. Final song “Cucumber 1996″ is a pleasant little acoustic song with smooth, broad singing. It’s wonderful.
But wait, there’s more!! On the fourth disc we suddenly wake up to find that there’s enhanced CD features. Since they are not available for the Mac, I have to take them to work to check out what’s on there. Turns out, it’s a few more songs from the band’s three early demos (while I’m not complaining to get this great archival stuff, I’d have thought that “enhanced” would mean things like video, pictures, things that you wouldn’t normally have access to on a regular CD… and it made me wonder why they didn’t just burn them onto a fifth and sixth CD). There are eight live performances, recorded between 2001 and 2009, as well as the cassette tape demos “Moths & Bagpipes” (13 songs) “The Songs Will Always Be There” (12 songs), and the 10 songs of “Mojo Sessions.” All told, the digitized songs from these four tapes cover nine of the 14 songs on “Pain Stained Morning” (with two versions of “Bull”), two covers that I can identify (both of them by Bob Dylan, but there may be more covers I don’t recognise, by Dylan or anyone else), and there are 18 songs that can’t be found anywhere else. The CD contains cassette inlay art for three of the releases, as well as a one-off song, “Daddy In The Lift”, which is credited here to Twang Bar Kings, even though the exact same recording also appears on Leslie’s Jug project release “Brownblink” (not quite sure why it’s even on this release, since it’s not a Humpback Oak song, other than the fact that it’s also not readily available, and that X’Ho mentions it in his essay on the band as one of his two favorite Humpback Oak songs – the other one is “Finer Life”). There’s not a lot of information about the band or the recordings on these tape inlays, although we do get an address at Block 408 Clementi Avenue 1, which means that the guys are from the part of Singapore I now live in (Toh Tuck). The rare songs contained on these demos and live recordings are “The Bootleg Bob” (chugging Bob Dylan mumblings), “Boy Caught” (sweet guitar rock), “Can You Find The Time” (drum machine-driven singalong folk madness), “Earthquake” (riffy, zoomy), “Eject” (electrified, rocky), “Hey Little Boy” (folky, structured, spooky), “Homer” (rockin’ electric), “Humpback Oak” (“Not Fade Away”), “I Live My Life Dangerously” (great groovy moody pop rock), “Insides” (somber folk), “It Takes a Lot To Laugh A Train To Cry” (chugging sweet rock), “Just Can’t Seem To Live” (two versions of this fast-paced pop folk, one with helium lyrics, and one lo-fi live recording with normal vocals), a cover of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and “If Not For You”, “Mathilda Noodle” (just that – noodling), “Moth” (groovy folky harmonising), “My Friend” (shamboling mumbling), “Oval” (sweet, beautiful strumming – “oval, never want to be a circle”, repeat 20 times”), “Pay to Find Girl in Mind” (zooming rock/pop), “River And The Seas Run Dry” (Biblical and groovy, Dylanesque), “Stanley Says” (brief brittle instrumental), “Story of Sanity” (Gram Parsons-eque), “Susie” (Velvet Underground-esque), “To Be High (Up In The Sky)” (REM-esque), “Working Men’s Song” (harmonica-driven protest folk about miners) and “Yesterday’s Child” (choppy chunky harmonising folk). Many of the songs are very demo-y, with many of the earliest tunes either sounding like Woodie Guthrie, a very young Bob Dylan, or very raw Velvet Underground demos. For some reason, the set includes, “Daddy in the Lift”, a song attributed to Twang Bar Kings but can actually be downloaded from Leslie’s website’s MP3 downloads page as part of his Jug unit. Of the recordings, the live shows seem to have the better quality, and are the most familiar. No real surprises here. There are, of course, songs that don’t appear elsewhere, like “Boy Caught”, “Just Can’t Seem To Live”. “If I Am Weak” was done in 2002, and sounds like a very polished song with great production. “Technohuman” is a cool, noisy track, very sweet. The band’s first demo, “Mojo Sessions” of 1991 is a collection of folk songs that sound very Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground-ish. “Working Men’s Song” sounds like its title, and “Just Can’t Seem To Live” has a quick Humpback Oak vibe, with somewhat helium-ish vocals. “Rivers And The Seas Run Dry” is very folky, while “Susie” sounds like an old Velvet Underground song. One of the coolest songs on the release is “Humpback Oak”, a jiggedy, driving song with the offbeat lyric “If you were to look around, people just don’t understand.” “Story of Sanity” is a song about a gunslinger, it’s very nice and dark and has great guitar work. “Yesterday’s Child” is one of those folk songs with all sorts of harmonising voices. You can just picture a group of 20-year-olds harmonising around a Sony Walkman recorder and having fun in a studious sorta way. “Father Floyd” is a big old harmonica folk song that goes groovy and happy. The last song on the demo tape is a well-known one, a shamoling version of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”. The band’s second demo from 1991, “The Song Will Always Be There”, starts off with “To Be High (Up In The Sky), sort of a Gordon Lightfoot/REM rocker, while “The Bootleg Bob” is blacked out ramblings with nice guitar work. Lovely. “Insides” is a rambling blues-influenced trip, kind of like an early Pink Floyd soundtrack job (i.e. More, Obscured by Clouds, Zabriskie Point, etc), while “Fear”, “No Finer Time To Be Alive” and “Void” are chunky full versions of the band’s well-known songs. “Hey Little Boy” is some sort of a folksy string of questions from an adult to a child that is a bit sinister. “My Friend” is shamboling droning guitar folk, yay. “If Not For You” is a Bob Dylan cover that tries to have that Beatles-with-Eric-Clapton feel to it, which it would be if it were not so lo-fi. “To Run” is another version of one of the Disc 4 rarities, it’s very nice and should have been on one of the albums. You can hear that “banging-drumsticks-together” sound that the guys used because they didn’t have/couldn’t afford a drum kit. Nice. “Bury Bury” is a full version of the Humpback Oak classic. The set also contains a full version of “Cretin” – at nearly two minutes long, it is over three times as long as those 30-second bits that appear on “Pain Stained Morning” (those versions may be shorter, but they are also much jauntier). “Moths and Bagpipes”, the band’s demo from 1992, starts off with “Bull”, a classic song that showed up on the debut. The recording of the song is a bit more advanced than tunes on “The Song Will Always Be There”, with its drum machine, but the song sounds way better on the “Pain Stained Morning” version (there is a second demo later on the tape as well, that has more atmospheric guitars to intro the piece, and it has no drum machine). “Can You Find The Time” is a rare track that is cheerful and warm, almost Chrismassy, but still shamboling in the harmonisation department. Nice lyrics: “Can you find the time to find the time” and “Every time you killed a man you killed 10,000 with your hand.” I’ve read these latter words of wisdom before, I think they are part of Jewish teachings/Judaism. “Deep Door Down” is a nice demo of the classic tune, “Moth” is a harmonizing hit machine. “Mathilda Noodle” is a lazy morning song, dreamy and droopy. “Stanley Says” is a rare instrumental track, and it grooves for less than a minute. “Lower Girl” and “Circling Square” are other demos of tracks from the first album, they sounds relatively fleshed-out and nice, while “Trip To My Neighbourhood” is a nice, jangly early version of one of the rarities tracks. “Pay to Find Girl in Mind” is one of those weird, raw early tracks, as is “Oval”, a beautiful song that seems to have a female backup (not too sure, though). Great guitar work on this one. “Earthquake” is another one of those groovy nearly-finished songs that never made it onto an album. Too bad, but glad we can hear it in its demo form anyway. Humpback Oak also has a great website. This is where the pictures and the scans of original lyrics sheets (together with original doodles) that I expected to be on the “enhanced CD” ended up!!!
Leslie Low, “Longing” – The year 2014 was a big one for Leslie Low – not only did his band The Observatory break in new members and release a brilliant new album called Oscilla, but he also put out TWO solo albums! This is the first, released in February, and it’s full of experimental sounds that involve drones, acoustic pluckings, and broad distorted chords, without any singing at all (Leslie is credited as playing guitars and “pulse generator”, whatever that is). Opening track “Bonfire Dance” starts off with droning sounds, but then breaks into electric and acoustic guitar pickings – it’s the shortest song on the release, at only 1:30 (most songs are around two minutes long, although one is 4:06, and the longest 5:49!), but it sets the tone for most of the other songs on Longing. “Down From The Mountain” groans and trembles with nervous energy. “The Fear Generator” has a helicopter ticking, and builds up strangeness with lots of backtracked guitars, and multi-layered strumming. “Trance Pulsar” sounds nearly Observatory-like, with interesting Pink Floyd-like sounds thrown in. “A Pale Resemblance” has no pulse generator, but has quirky triple guitar tracks, each doing something different, whether it’s plucking along, shimmering echoey, or going off a-kilter. “Trembling” layers pulse with Star Trek sounds, chords, and burbling pluckings that eventually pick up. “Swaying” grooves along sleepily. The longest song on the album, “North Sea”, has drone sounds and drone strings (a fixation with E, maybe), and some more pluckings, before increasing the tempo, and then falling apart into jangling, strange noise and backtracking; there’s something Boris-like about this, especially the Heavy Metal Me music. “End Of The Journey” is also a fairly long song, at 4:06, it’s a bit Cocteau Twins-ish, with mandolin-like strummings, fat chords, plonking – just lovely! “LongingLongingLonging” is a tender tune that has no experimental feel to it, simply nice fingerpicking and some harmonics. It could easily have taken vocals, which is not something you could say about most of the other songs on the release. Nice.
I have the limited-to-100 vinyl version of this, which comes not in a sleeve, but in a folded piece of high quality printed and stamped paper, which contains other information, such as how it was recorded over two days in Norway in 2011, mixed in 2011, mastered in 2012, and released in 2013 (although, according to Ukajiki Records, the actual release date was 17 January 2014). There’s also a download card, and another card with printed/stamped text:
A longing, free form the pull, hovering, before
utterance could be made. We met in the forest, a
pale resemblance by the fire. And it followed me to
the mountain. The sea out there seems eternal.
The sails, they soon deflate on the boat people.
Laughter, food and tea. Then two afternoons of
recording. Through a vessel of nerves, of grinding
troubles and pains, becomes music form a fading
hedonistic being. Nostalgic, and at the same time,
reckless, with the freedom celebration of being
away. Midsummer. I’m a novice coming down the
mountain. The end of the journey. Bid farewell to
kindred spirits. Make my way back home to see you.
LL No Such Thing As Ghosts
Leslie Low, “No Such Thing As Ghosts” -
The year 2014 was a big one for Leslie Low – not only did his band The Observatory break in new members and release a brilliant new album called Oscilla, but he also put out TWO solo albums! This amazing work is the second solo album, released on my wife’s birthday in September (and the same month as Oscilla!), a collection of folky, percussion-less acoustic songs that ruminate on life in Singapore and uses arcane-sounding terms like “certificate of entitlement” (the COE is actually a document that people in Singapore need in order to be able to purchase an automobile, but the sinister-sounding term probably has broader symbolic intent in this case). Great!! It’s also very different from his first solo release of the year, Longing, which was instrumental and rather experimental. The songs on No Such Thing as Ghosts are also longer, with only two as short as the Longing songs (which were usually two minutes in length), and several that stretch beyond five minutes (the title track hits 8:51).
“Coming Right Up” is a gloomy number with two guitar tracks and Leslie’s very low, low voice (I’m not the first to observe that he’s aptly-named); “Big Love” is about the banalities of daily existence – it seems twee at first, talking about tribal families (“have a beer and watch TV”), but it’s all real. “Declaration” is spooky; “Despair” arpeggiates things a bit; “Be Helpless” is extremely slow, with spooky double strummings, and it is also very long – it goes on for 7:51, just great! “Just Like Water” is the only instrumental on the album, also the shortest track at 1:21, and it twinkles along with a bit of resonance; the very long title track “No Such Thing As Ghosts” is a nice folk song that shifts gears mid-way to become a beautiful madrigal of sorts; “Some Perspective” is a pretty chilled out folk song, while “On A Tilt” combines a slow pace with mandolin-like guitar zooms.
I have the limited-to-200-pieces LP of this recording, and it comes with blue-tinted sepia pictures on front and back, and a proper lyrics sheet. Nice.
Here are some of Leslie’s notes on the release:
The songs were written in between tours and when I wasn’t working on Oscilla. It felt like a visitation from someone I once knew well. The first was the title track in September of 2013. It was distinctly very much like my older material but with some mild Balinese rhythmic influence and also an outpouring from my subconscious mind, the melodies and song structures from my teenage growing up years of listening to cantopop.
By February of 2014, I had demos of about an album’s worth of material. Decided to record them properly and put words to those that were half-formed and finish up the album.
Leslie Low “Triangular”
Leslie Low “Triangular”
Leslie Low, “Triangular” – This lovely CD-R is an exclusive limited release, and it was for sale only at the “On Being Leslie Low” book store event that I went to on November 5th, 2010, at Books Actually (when it was still on Club Street). The disc comprises re-recorded songs that Leslie Low has written and performed in Humpback Oak, with The Observatory, and in his solo career, and all of the songs are acoustic numbers with Leslie’s haunting voice zapped with vocal effects to purify his voice and give it monstrous clarity. Great great great!! Songs like “Drop of Soul” are so much slowed down from the original punky/new wave versions that they’re barely recognisable, but they are all beautiful. Some of the songs are not from Low’s more-recognisable Humpback Oak collection of songs, recorded 1991-1998, but from solo works like Worm (“The People”, 2006) and The Observatory (Dark Folke’s “Mind Roots”, 2009) and other sources (“Portsdown Road” and “Triangular”). Aiming to get to the heart of the mystery, I asked Leslie about “Portsdown Road” and “Triangular”, and he says that “Portsdown Road” is a re-do of Humpback Oak’s “Normanton Park 1996″, which appears on the Rarities disc in the Oaksongs box. It is full of arpeggiated guitar, while the original is chordy and strummy. He also mentioned that “Triangular”, a doleful strummer, is a demo appearing here for the first time (Leslie seems to be fond of shapes – other songs are called “Oval”, “Circling Square”, and The Observatory website has a logo that is dominated by triangular shapes. The songs are the same basic songs, but they are all very different from the originals. “Deep Door Down” in 1994 was a groovy folk-rock song, starting off with guitars, drum coming in later. “Deep Door Down” in 2010 became very sparse and sombre, with sad guitars and a high-ish lullaby voice. “Drop of Soul” in 1997 was bold and strummy, albeit drumless, while in 2010 it had become long, drawn out and spooky. “Finer Life” 1994 was about singing and picking at the guitar, but by 2010 it was about taking out notes and slowing everything down. “The Last Homegrown Lost Boy” of 1998 showed a band already starting to experiment and sound freaky, with odd backwards voices drifting in and out and some orchestration, but by 2010 it was more breathy, with barely a strum, and a few spare, spacy sound effects. “Lucifer” 1994 was jaunty and strummy, with both acoustic and electric guitars, and eventually also drums and Michael Stipe vocals, but by 2010 it was much more chilled out and “normal”. “Mind Roots” 2009 is a song by The Observatory (it’s the final track of Dark Folke) that sort of drones on and on, with vocal harmonies and some creepy keyboards, as well as theremin later on in, while the acoustic version of just one year later is slowed down, with only a single guitar chord at the end of each line. There are major chords and some hope, not all gloom. “Model Citizen” 1998 starts out with icy keyboards and some some quasi-gothic “I’m a product of the experiment” angst that is near-Tool punky, while the 2010 update is monotonal and arpeggiated. “Portsdown Road” is a very chilly acoustic arpeggiated reinvention of “Normanton Park”, which glooms along nicely with jazzy drumming and some cool arpeggios. “The People” is a sort-of “Hotel California”-ish tune (at first), which then becomes a protest song (or a Nick Drake song?) of sorts, done in a style not dissimilar to the mood of Triangular. The 2010 version has a shorter intro and much busier arpeggios. “Scared Scarred”, in its 1997 version has military drumming and zoomy guitar stuff, while the 2010 update is sleepy and hypnotic, with just the barest hint of keyboard (viola?) accompaniment. I never noticed this in other songs. All together, there is some irony in the monotonous production and tone of the new versions of these songs on Triangular, in comparison with the varied and experimental efforts heard across the six releases that provide their source material. Perhaps Leslie, who started off in a stripped-down folk guitar band and then moved through art rock and avant garde has come full circle and is coming back to his roots with a “pure” version of songs from all phases of his life; still, while it may seem monotonous and droney at times, the sound and tone and dreamy, relaxed atmosphere of the 2010 update makes it a real winner.
Leslie Low, “Worm” – With a cover/artwork concept that seems to have been inspired by the Erik Karle “The Hungry Caterpillar” book (i.e. a hole bored through the many layers of the multi-folded cardboard stock cover goes through several of the gorgeous illustrations by Melvin Chee hidden within), the musical mind behind Singaporean art-pop band The Observatory Leslie Low releases his first solo work. The 11 songs on this 2006 release are largely soft folk songs that can most easily be compared to the sparsest of Nick Drakes songs, or perhaps a tinge of very early Nagisa Ni te when the production values were a bit more jaunty. “Little one” is an ode to childhood in the city, with lots of background vocals that can only come from Leslie Low himself. “Dull boy” is a sparse folk song – solo guitar and Low’s clear, bright vocals – as is “All things new”, and nearly every song on the release. “The worm” is even more Nick Drake-like, with the accompaniment of some droning keyboard. “The people” starts off with some impressive folk guitar fingerwork before moving off into a sombre meditation on social conditions. Low’s songs are as simple as The Observatory’s are complex, you can tell he has a lot of fun with them.
Lucifugous (Arcn Templ and X’Ho/Chris Ho), “Lucifugous” - I like Arcn Templ because it’s a side project of Leslie Low and Vivian Wang of The Observatory, Singapore’s best space rock band. Arcn Templ plays trippy space instrumentals, but this time they team up with X’Ho (pronounced as “Chris Ho”) to create weird, moody, Skinny Puppy-ish Satanic music that is really just plain weird (and, therefore, maybe not so very Satanic). The first track “Sodom Me” (sounds like another word) starts off with weird sounds, crazy beats, then strange Skinny Puppy-ish sombre vocals. Hmmm… wild interlude with spooky Satanic growling. Wow! “Her Soul’s Demise” is a collection of strange soundscapes of spooky sounds, no beats until about 66.6% of the way in, and some sort of stark, gloomy Depeche Mode balladry. It’s nearly all words, with a bit of knob-twiddling in between. I wonder if it’s about Singapore, otherwise known as the Little Red Dot (since that’s all you can see of it on most world maps), with lyrics like “Famous small Dot, demands a lot/ Like a hungry maniac, she thinks she’s God/ She wants unbridled power & all of its glory/ Travels ‘round the world, floggin’ one-sided story.” “Nosferatu” has truly awful lyrics (much worse than the other examples on the album), like “Who’s hairy? Is Harry hairy? What is hairy? Who knows hairy?”, but it’s still a good track nonetheless based on its production values. “Lord Of Mirage” is more like a moody, atmospheric Observatory song, fully of wispy lyrics, percussion and post rock guitar sounds. Nice. “Zombie Hitler Youth” is a cool song that just sort of strums along, also very critical of a Singapore-like modern society and its values, it seems like it was partly inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Autumn Gold“. “Lucifugous” returns us to Skinny Puppy and industrial territory, with spoken voices rather than growls. It is a trippy tune that drones and loops, starting with Chinese lyrics about the lion demon king (wonder who that could be) and his ghost eyes (CCTV, perhaps?), and the fright of humanity. The English lyrics are prose, telling about the fall of Eden. Lucifugous is actually an English word, meaning “avoiding light”, and they handily provide a definition in the lyrics booklet. The final words: “hairier than Lucifer” (and now that “who’s hairy”, ie Harry, lyric makes more sense). “Lamb (Von)” has strange keyboard sounds, talking, and scary growling of the word “lamb”. It’s very scary stuff, man!! “Satan’s Blood” is more soundscapes, no guitar or drum, and spoken word. “Rosalie’s Fray” is simple guitar strums and whispering, soundbites, and spooky sounds. A nice song, actually, and a more personal exploration. I wonder who Rosalie is… The packaging is cool – the box is a vinyl single-sized cardboard pizza box-type of device with a fold-in tab to close it, numbered (I have 162), there’s a sticker, a black booklet, and a sticker of the album cover, which shows an artistic St Peter’s Cross with arcane anatomical textbook images. Very weird. Inside the booklet are photo collages of human, anatomical and religious imagery. One of them shows a man covered in heavy Thai tattoos, his head covered by a swastika made of black penises. Weird! The booklet contains a page of song lyrics (with song credits below the lyrics), facing an image. The first “song” in the booklet is “Journey To Apeiron”, which is really just a bonus poem since that song is not on the CD at all, then it kicks into “Sodom Me” and the rest of the songs in order, one per two pages. Nice. The booklet is also larger format, also the size of a vinyl single. The closing words to the album are pretty cool:
I want to make an album no one in my country would dream of making – songs with simple chords that drone like hymnal echoes of mental notes. Usually, the songs came to me after a night’s sleep. They feel like “belief-accessories”. I describe them as a form of “purgatorial minstrel music” to help appease the raging disquiet. Stay Haunted.
Magus, Sun Worshipper – This is a side project of Leslie Low, best known for making sensitive music with The Observatory (and previously with his Humpback Oak band) and Mark Dolmont of the band Meddle. The gatefold cardboard CD pack comes with a poster on one side (a pic of the sun rising from 30,000 feet), and a black CD in a black envelope in the other. Nice. The songs are hot and fantastic, driving and intense, and not even a teeny weeny little bit like The Observatiory, or anything Leslie Low has ever done before (I cannot speak for Dolmont). None of the songs contain lyrics, they are mainly guitar and drums (spastic drum! frantic guitar!!!) and the occasional samples of carnival effects, and all sorts of other stuff. The riffs are like sped-up doom metal, but with whacky equilibrium, near-Om-ish, and it’s near-perfect. I love it. No standout tracks – each track is equally splendificient. Wicked crescendo electronics augmenting “Synthetic Waves”, wow!