Observing Leslie Low and The Observatory

I recently had the good fortune to be informed of a free concert by The Observatory, Singapore’s best-known art-pop band, headed by Leslie Low and his crew of merry soundsters.  The event was last night at the theatres of the National University of Singapore, making it my first reason to go to NUS since I’ve been to Singapore.  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 (figuratively speaking).  The evening 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 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 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:

CD reviews:

The Observatory, “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 – who has illustrated releases by Sunn 0))) and other Southern Lord bands – that fill the gorgeous hardcover booklet that the CD has been released in. 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. 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 spooky Richard Wright (“Echoes”) keyboards and 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 headbanging 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.

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.

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