Thank you so much to Pairs for travelling down from Shanghai to perform atour last event at Rockschool in Wanchai (look forward to the new location Gregory!)Pairs are really a dynamic duo and we want you to come back to Hong Kongas soon as you can!!!! Thanks also to Laura Palmer and The Astrocytes for supportingthis great band and BIG thanks to The Merriweather Deer for stepping in at thelast minute to show us their dynamic rock! Thanks always to The Undergroundteam & to all the fans who support what we do. See you all soon!
The Merriweather Deer
- All Will Fall
- Keep it to a Minimal
- She Comes to Me as Mystery
- Different Light
- I, Destroyer
- Of Bricks and Interior [Encore]
Once more came a night when Chris B had control of the smoke machine – methinks it’s going to be a permanent fixture, seeing how much she, I, the performers and the audience enjoy the pointlessly fascinating wads of smoke emanating noisily from the machine. It was even more fitting when you consider that it was the first time that all four bands were Underground debutantes – a real rarity. With Milkteeth having pulled out earlier that week due to illness within the band, TMD was a hurried, but excellent, replacement for them. And their set was evidence of why I say “excellent” – from song to song, it was tight, well arranged, and competently performed. They have two understated guitars, a smooth yet popping bass, and a keyboard and laptop as well, to top off the sound, with driving drumwork to wrap them all up. They clearly also had a lot of friends in the audience, so they also had the advantage of playing to a home crowd. All Will Fall began with a soft rock feel, but then accelerated suddenly when the drums moved in, changing the feel completely. There was lots of delay and reverb on the guitars, which, when combined with the top-of-the-throat-pitched vocals went directly to your head – you couldn’t ignore this fantastic sound that they produced.
They used a variety of different sounds, taking full advantage of the electronic resources available to them, without going overboard. There were a remarkable number of changes of pace for a band that’s not metal, and a lot of clean, bottom-of-the-fretboard, simple lick-oriented solos, played to the eternal-crashdown backbeat of the drums – this was most ably demonstrated on Keep it to a Minimal, which even had an almost atonal piano bit further adding to their quirky, Noughties-rock sound. The bassist seemed almost to adopt the firm bass style of Krist Novoselic, being the grounding melodic influence that counteracted the various different directions into which the other instruments went. She Comes to Me as Mystery had a more relaxed, country/folk feel, while I, Destroyer was a kind of Radiohead reinterpretation. This one was particularly good in showing the many moods that their music could take, going from light to pensive in a matter of seconds.
They did so well, in fact, that they were persuaded by the crowd to do an encore (of course, this may have been helped by the singer’s announcing that he was going to be leaving HK soon). Of Bricks…was more of a post-grunge ditty, with more plaintive-sounding guitars and more nimble fretwork on the lead, and more jazzy rhythms. Throughout the set, they all maintained a very dedicated stage presence, which made for compulsive viewing. Encores at Underground shows are rarities, but this one was thoroughly deserved, even if the signer were not leaving soon, for the sonic boom of a start they provided to the night.
- Human Error
- Stretch Freak
Now, the simple fact that 80% of their set is as yet untitled will give you an excellent idea of the band’s laidback attitude even before you hear a single note, and this is only reinforced when they do start playing. However, being laidback is not always a good thing, and Laura Palmer are a good example of why. They have elements that could make them a good band – they use very few pedals, a willingness to go into atonal areas of sound, an emphasis on using the guitars to create atmosphere rather than noodle away at solos; all things that I highly approve of. But, these guys are at the other end of the spectrum from wanky noodling, because there’s very little happening during the songs for extended period of time, both sonically and visually. This is even more obvious if you know the intense drama that occupied the life of their namesake from the TV series Twin Peaks. I do appreciate their post-punk, Talking Heads-like inclination to use guitars and keys to create space in, rather than fill up, the soundscape, but they lack that intangible something that makes a song minimalistic rather than empty. I think it’s called focus.
The drumwork was quite good throughout, adopting styles ranging from vaguely military, to classic rock crashdowns, to light-metal thudding with plenty of syncopation. Human Error had a busy, garage-rock feel to it, and you began to be hopeful that the string of “Untitled”s did not mean that the set was correspondingly lacking in content. However, despite some very bluesy and (surprisingly) psychedelic guitar in song no. 2 and the more prog-rock feel of song no. 3, it begins to feel (pretty) vacant. Song no. 5 was a good one, though, with an avant-garde feel, the deadpan repetitions of “I wonder why”, and its generally eerie ominous feel. At their best, they’re reminiscent of the good emo that grew out of hardcore, with its lighter vocals and more personal themes. Song no. 7 was particularly Talking Heads-esque, plus with some rattlesnake-like tambourine, and toneless shredding; but without David Byrne’s lingering voice and poetry, it failed to grip you. This was reflected in the audience’s reactions as well – you could sense that they really wanted to have fun, but they just had nothing to latch on to and really enjoy – hence, the applause for them was scattered and hesitant where it could have been deafening. Their approach does work on some levels, though, and it’s their job, now, to make it work on more.
- Thank You
- Morning Warning
- We Are the Beautiful
I am not particularly Kantian in my belief system – if I were, I would consider intention to be the most important part of anything. Correspondingly I would’ve been really happy with the Astrocytes’, because they clearly try to sound good. However, since I’m not, I just can’t be happy with the kind of generic pop-rock that they currently play – it fades into the background of your musical memory all too quickly. And mind you, this is despite having some very obviously talented musicians, especially the guitarist (who clearly hails from a classic/hard rock musical background), and an endearing singer. It just doesn’t gel together particularly well yet, and they end up sounding unremarkable and patchy. Which is really not the way it has to be. They use a few pre-recorded tracks while playing live, presumably to add to their sound – I’ll venture to say that they don’t need it; they’re potentially good enough not to need winding hypnotic (and annoying) tracks on CDs.
That said, the guitars were good on most tracks, having a late Eddie Van Halen-esque feel to them – they were especially good while almost-shredding during Morning Warning, and the epic sound they took on during Jane. The bass was consistent throughout, maintaining a Geddy Lee like pace and style, moving with a cool smoothness through songs. Their singer, as I’ve said, has a voice that’s clear, and with a good range – and despite a few missteps along the way (especially during the very high-pitched portions of Morning Warning) she was quite good. Her voice was especially good during We Are the Beautiful, after it had gotten a little ragged, which gave it a nice edge to help work the song into the less cheesy side of 80s glam metal (which was basically where the guitars were stuck). She must, though, learn to sing within her limits, as her perception of how high her voice can go without being annoying is incongruous with that of the listeners’. Happily, Jane was probably their best song, well-structured, having a mellow pop-rock sound that sounded more original than the rest of their songs had, and some good singing and guitars on it. They finished their set with a note of hope – if they can continue along the vein of Jane and find their niche, they could develop into a noteworthy band.
Pairs (Shanghai 上海)
- No Regrets
- Cloud Nine
- Yangpu Qu
- Oh Ghost
- I Want to Die in the Ocean
- Fragile B
First off, I’d like to say how much I personally love the concept of these guys – for one, there are far too few guitar and drums groups that aren’t blues-based. Secondly, having been through so many eras and varieties of music, there are very few remaining ways to really challenge listeners, while still being musical. While Pairs are not quite that difficult to listen to, they are still very much in the musical wilderness, purveying a hardcore yet punk yet post-punk-esque rabid mutant strain of music. And a much needed mutant it is, too.
Anyhow, these guys were the first band to actually ask, nay,demand smoke from Chris (by wailing “Smooooooke!” between songs, hehe). This made for excellent entertainment, as an ego-war of smoke was waged. However, as Chris B possessed the lone remote, this was somewhat one-sided, as she succeeded in silencing singer/drummer Xiao Zhong multiple times, right in mid-banter. Everyone still there clearly enjoyed these bits as much as they did the music, as they were dancing to the songs, with their gaze fixated on the stage at all times. And justifiably so, for the two of them made for compulsive viewing. Having a singing drummer already makes an act very interesting to watch, but this was on another scale altogether – he was like an ADD-afflicted child, with his hyper-convulsive movements and agonised expression while playing and singing – kinda like Darby Crash (including some of his self-mutilation tendencies) . As mobile as the music itself, he even got off his stool at points during songs to writhe and jump around onstage – there was even a bit where he seemed to mistakenly throw the mike off its stand, but that really didn’t stop him, as the set continued at breakneck speed (happily, the mike was recovered soon, and surprisingly not all that worse for the wear.) And during all of this psychosis, F just stood there, an Arthur Kane-like living statue, with a blatantly uncryptic way of antagonising the audience, by playing with her back to us nearly every second. Combine these two drastic visuals with some kickass music, and you have an enthralling act.
If you talk to them, they’ll be totally self-deprecating in their description of their sound (as they were in their interview with the Underground; read it by clicking here). You’d be inclined to think that they really can’t play – but don’t be fooled. Their musical minimalism is one born out, not of incompetence, but higher judgement. Zhong’s drumkit is very austere, but it produced every sound their songs need (in addition, of course, to the adjacent amps, wall and his own spine that he also played); and he played them in a style that calls to mind Topper Headon, and even a little Barrett Martin-era Skin Yard. There was a barely-detectable backbeat, covered up by crashing foreground drums (along with various pieces of stage equipment that were played as well). F’s guitars were just plain awesome – she has the elbow-version of Johnny Ramones bionic wrist, and she uses this power to rapidly downstroke the crap out of the strings. With just two simple pedals she created a plethora of textures, combining the near-atonal calm of post-punk with the speed of punk, and served in grungy sauce. The result was a surprisingly decadent set, despite the fact that most songs had around two chords in them.
Birthday was “dedicated to Laura Palmer” (though I imagine the original more so than the band that night), and had some near-psychedelic guitarwork, as with No Regrets. Oh Ghost had a plodding military beat, which really made the straight-laced guitars really pop. The lyrics (the ones you could hear anyway) were delightfully quirky, and had that element of pidgin symbolist intrigue. The songs as of now, though, are pretty much one-note- they haven’t yet developed distinct characters and hence tend to meld into each other. But, this is something that can be developed over time – in the meantime, they do have the je ne sais quoi that can only be natural, and this bodes well for their future work. As Fragile B stopped as abruptly as it started, the night was capped off with a final blast of “smooooke”, and as they hurried off stage, the mutant was put to rest once more.
Rockschool: In Memoriam
So, for those who don’t know (yet), Rockschool was declared to be “relocating” a couple of weeks ago. This could mean that it could be a while ‘til we all see the awesome people involved in that endeavour playing host to us again (hopefully not, though). Still, while there is hope for the Rockschool concept, it does seem unlikely that we will see it in the same location.
Thus, for the sake of that cool, massive and very convenient place, take out a silent moment and think of the awesome times you had there (if they don’t fall within the realm of a thick alcohol haze, that is). It will be a while, once again, until the Underground returns to the lovably gritty Wanchai. We’ll miss it, never forget it, and hope that you, the reader, will and won’t (respectively) either.
photos © Copyright 2010 by ANGUS LEUNG
poster by ANGUS LEUNG