Underground 102

09-06-12

Fantastic night BACK at The Live House in Mongkok. Thanks so much to the great staff & sound team there, made all 4 bands just stand out and unveil their exceptionalism. I’ve always loved the numbered series for the variety and creativity which was in full auditory display on this night, woooohoooo! I’m always finding proof that there is great music in Hong Kong, if you just take the time to go and find it.
Thanks always to the bands, their fans, The Underground team, Becks, Edifier, HKGFM.net and Musica!

love Chris B xx

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Double Malt

1. City Limit Sign
2. Mahiny Out to Jobim
3. Born and Raised [John Mayer cover]
4. Simplicity
5. Unsung
6. Sinner by Trade
7. Tonight Everything’s Right

The red-tinged ambient interior of the Live House was offset by bright and uplifting chords as the night began with Double Malt. These two guys play acoustic music that has the classic stamp of having been conceived in bars and pubs – alternately uplifting or soothing, extremely melodic, and easy to clap your hands to or sing along with. They do have a certain levity and joy to their sound, generally backed up by the lyrics, that’s engaging and makes them easy on almost anyone’s ears. This very same quality also, however, means that they are somewhat… vanilla. Since acoustic guitarists (to my mind) have to work extra hard at carving out a sonic signature because they don’t have the options of tone and texture that electric guitarists do, if one doesn’t think about how to make the songs different from each other and from those of others’, the music can tend to blend into a fuzzy mass at the back of the listener’s mind. Their first four songs, for instance, were so similar that I struggled to think about them as separate songs at the end of the set. [On a personal note, the John Mayer cover really didn’t help my opinion of this.]

There were hints of jazz, which they apparently also do, but the hints were too generic and poppy to really mean much. Think drive-time radio-friendly ‘happy’ music, and that (unfortunately) about sums it up. Another grumble I had with them was one I have had with many musicians, which is that if you’re playing really melodic, mostly-major chord songs, you have to put a bit more effort into hitting as many notes as you can dead on. It’s a massive psychological letdown when someone breaks the spell of the song as you’re trying to go along with it by half-assing a note.

Having said that, they get full marks for performance – every song was heartfelt to the hilt and their comfort on stage was infectious. The combination of voices they have is excellent – one being rich, throaty and smooth, and the other a great foil with a slightly papery, warm quality. Unsung, written about a friend that passed away who was a philosophical mentor, was a pleasingly rich and well-written composition, with the guitar taking on a lovely piano-like ring – the way good acoustic guitars are supposed to sound. The percussion added by the cajón backed this up nicely. If I may be so bold, I’d suggest that they consider leaving out the cajón in Sinner by Trade; percussion seems to make acoustic guitarists lazy, making them hit chords with less purpose. The song is an interesting composition in a minor key, and might be served better by the added force of another guitar, or keyboards, or something melodic. Smartly, they ended on a high note, with Tonight Everything’s Right being a jaunty, bouncy number. I must stress again that their performance was quite enjoyable , and they got their crowd going alright. Just that the songs having more character would add a lot to their set, which being enthusiastic can’t substitute for.

– Shashwati Kala

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Papancha

1. Stop the World
2. Come What May
3. So Good to See You
4. London’s Waking
5. The Sun is Shining
6. Hey You
7. June Sunday
8. Papancha
9. Shape the Light

Next on were the electric side of Stuart Lennon (who’d played acoustic at Underground Kubrick) to add some get-up-and-go to the night. First off, kudos to Stuart for being a canny enough composer to have made his songs fit both styles perfectly; the songs have a complement of different features in this form that’s distinct from their acoustic ones. Secondly, Papancha featured a new drummer; a recent change which, it must be said, suits them down to the ground. His phrasing of beats reminds me a lot of Dave Grohl, in the sense that it hits the correct words hard, and goes easy on the others, all the while giving the song a compelling, bouncing spring in its step. Krist Novoselic once implied that Dave Grohl was a “kickin’ drummer”; this guy is too, and has a similar habit of almost leading the music when it’s at its most intense.

“Frunge” is evidently their portmanteau of ‘folk’ and ‘grunge’, and it’s quite accurate. The textures you hear from Papancha are noticeably 90s in their bubbling flange-tempered distortedness. What completes the mix is a tendency to compose songs almost like a hardcore or punk band – no unnecessary flashy chords, just primary colours, used to create a surprisingly deep and un-hackneyed-sounding feel. The folky aspect may be that the lyrics don’t have the random, spacey quality that many bands termed grunge bands appeared to have, and are significantly less adolescent. There’s also Stuart’s tendency to solo like Dean DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots) – simple, sticking to the melody but effective. Whatever it is, it works, ‘cause at their best they sound like a solid rock ‘n’ roll band in the vein of the MC5 with the genteel quality of REM.

Stop the World, always begun with a Kerouac haiku, was a tad over-delivered on the night, but still retained its whirring Love Battery-like mildly psychedelic chug. The set got livelier from then on, with So Good… despite being a slightly slower almost-ballad, being really punchy. The perennial sprightliness of the sing-along The Sun is Shining was nicely broken up with an unusually bluesy solo, sounding like one that could’ve been from a song by The Sleeves’. The bass led Hey You (an excellent decision), and its frustrated but steady subject matter. June Sunday, a sad song was really intense, made more so by the lack of a solo. The way the song seemed to just hang in the heavy air was brilliant (and the accenting of the first two lines of the chorus with the ride cymbal was a great touch). Papancha could’ve been on fIREHOSE’s “Flyin’ the Flannel” album, with its express pace and maelstrom of sound. One quibble I do have was that the set should’ve ended here; up until this point it seemed like the set had been carefully planned to rise in energy and reach a zenith. Shape the Light made the set feel like it went on a bit too long, and this was unnecessary. It didn’t help that it felt oddly prog rock in its feel, wherein the guitars never quite find their groove and are jonesing for some groove. But, let bygones be beegones. Dammit, the rest of the set was just fine, even rousing, so one “extra” song can be easily forgiven.

– Shashwati Kala

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Jukator

1. Davidia
2. While My Guitar Gently Weeps [Beatles cover]
3. [New Song, Untitled]
4. Phantom’s Clutch

Before anything else is said, I must make clear that I’ve been waiting for Jukator to play at the Underground for quite a while now. Their brand of Dream Theatre-like grandiose and complex rock and roll is a standout within the music scene. Complex rhythms, compositions with tempo changes that actually mean something (as opposed to merely a standard tendency of the metal genre) and long songs where the musicians actually have something to say rather than guitar-wanking… Add to that a singer with a voice that sounds a bit like Elvis singing operatic metal – they’re pretty awesome.

So I was more than a little disappointed at their performance this night, if only because it was underwhelming and featured some not-too-inspiring song selection. For some reason they chose the songs that do not truly stand out, except in light of their more distinctive songs; on their own, these songs sounded like they were good compositions coming out of a highly competent band with a decent singer. But nothing more; and yet I have heard them be so much more. Now, I may have been hoisted by my own petard of expectation here, in which case I apologise. But the drama and tension that their songs need to create to work was absent this night, and ended up sounding more like the weird breed of metal in the 80s that took the lesser parts of glam metal (the big, all-enveloping sound) and prog rock (egregious length and lots of fiddling) and turned it into cheese. Musically speaking of course. A small whisper of “post-karaoke” went around, which while admittedly a bit snide, was unfortunately accurate in this instance.

Still, that part of their oeuvre that was interesting was still pretty good. Davidia moved from a slow, brooding grainy sound to soaring heights of Elgar-like pomp, with lots of near-virtuoso guitars that, happily, reminded me of the similar tendencies of Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden). Their Beatles cover was a passable one, although more theatrical than I’m used to hearing. Their new song, unfortunately, epitomised their sound that night – the slight Arabic tones and well-timed keyboards could not save it from sounding camp rather than majestic. Phantom’s Clutch was a definite improvement, with a thrashy pace and drums reminiscent of those in Van Halen’s Eruption. Like some Elvis Costello songs, it moved from big bad opera to creepy paranoia quickly and efficiently. The long and intense crashdown at the end was enjoyable, but not ultimately redeeming of a set that could’ve (dammit, should’ve!) been a lot better. Sorry, guys.

– Shashwati Kala

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Say You Care

1. 當需要變成習慣 Hold Up

2. 不知道失去了什麼 Don’t Know What I’ve Missed

3. 對未來認識了多一些 About My Future

4. 離分開不完 Not Far

5. 438

Say You Care was an oddly perfect closer to the show, or it was for me anyway. My ambivalence and confusion at the last set was echoed throughout their songs and it was reassuring in a weird way. Which works just fine – the bulk of bands that may be called post-rock rely on this very feature, to be able to start and end a song on the same note of uncertainty-inducing chords that are at the same time powerful. It’s interesting to me that they call themselves “indie power-pop”, because their sound appears to be the very antithesis of this notion. Lots of strangled-sounding prickly, jagged guitars set to near-soulful singing or high-pitched screaming. Their rhythm section is particularly adept at building up lots of momentum to propel the song through the sometimes disjointedly arranged vocal bits. At many points they were reminiscent of the lostprophet’s first album (Fake Sound of Progress) but with way better (if slightly unsettling), somewhat Billy Corgan-like singing – which is a terrific place to be, really. They also appear to have the habit of teasing the audience by starting off songs with non-sequiturs; 不知道失去了什麼 started off with a super-saccharine acoustic-pop like bit, only to move into the tumultuous and grinding waters of their regular sound. 438 too started off startlingly jazzy but moved into a chugging head-bangable song really quick. This habit, I strongly endorse because if done well it makes songs that much more interesting. 離分開不完 was so much a colourful and chromatic song that it almost sounded like another awesome local band, Hungry Ghosts, and was a welcome change of mood. Overall, an engaging and highly charged set which was a great way to close the night (even if it didn’t provide much closure).

– Shashwati Kala

photos © Copyright 2012 by ANGUS LEUNG

poster by ANGUS LEUNG

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