Songs without Words

26-04-14

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Thanks so much to Becky & Karen for creating this original concept, what a creative night it was. Each band were awesome & had their own style of music which they presented beautifully and so many of us in the audience stayed from beginning to end! Thanks to Backstage & HKGFM.net for their support. A round of applause for The Underground Team and special thanks to Sam (our Visuals DJ) and Abe (sound).​
love Chris B xx


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Topsy Wave

  1. Under The Bridge
  2. I Will Be Joining You There

Four musicians plus the biggest pedal board in Hong Kong. A two-song set list with 25 minutes to deliver it. Not only did post-rockers Topsy Wave look likely to present us with something different, this night was a different challenge for them as well as they took to the stage minus a recently departed fifth member.

Establishing a theme for the Underground’s Songs Without Words show – “have they started yet?” – line checks give way to trilling keyboard and ringing guitar before drums count in and the gently-paced groove of Under The Bridge is underway. Immediate impressions are of a wordless Art of Fighting with hints of The Breadmen. It’s an eminently pleasant sound, with none of the jarring, abstract discord that characterizes some of the more avant-garde post-rock. Even as guitar begins to distort, drums begin to crash and keys introduce a theremin wail, there’s an overriding sense of restraint and musicality, with each band member playing his role in the unfolding story. It’s that rare beast, a subtle wall of sound.

Seven minutes into the first track and momentum flags slightly, but the sense of meter remains unimpeachable and direction is rediscovered by the ten-minute mark. Band and audience alike rekindle their interest and line up for a climax which is reminiscent of a Knopfler soundtrack.

The second half, I Will Be Joining You There, opens with a shimmering, gentle upwell of alto chords gradually coloured by percussive plucking and complementary toms. As the chords swell like a horde of angelic cicadas, I try to visualize images that match the sounds. If I’m in a bad mood, this feels like cold, spectral isolation. If I’m in a good mood, it feels like I’m lying in a field watching the clouds, leaves and blackbirds drift overhead.

Strident, crunching guitars sweep all this away into a dynamic middle section which could easily be the backdrop to cinematic action. But, as this is allowed to dissipate before the next build-up, I’m again left considering whether that 7-10 minute trough is really worth the trouble. But eventually it brings us to another rock-out ending which, after 20-odd minutes of mostly lullaby, is a little easier to take standing up.

While it’s possible to imagine a second guitar adding depth and richness to the Topsy-Wave sound, I personally was happy with the sense of space and clarity provided by just one. The sound is crisp, not muddy – honest, in a sense. This is a solid configuration for a solid band with a lot of good ideas and the talent to execute an enjoyable and absorbing set. Best yet, they have room to keep developing.

— Brendan Clift


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The Glareless

  1. Opening
  2. Encounter
  3. Lingering pt. 1
  4. Unburden
  5. Soul Return Night
  6. Lingering pt. 2
  7. Voodoo
  8. Do You Understand?

Here is a bunch of boys with electro cred. Duelling Korgs, a Roland MC-307, drums and bass. Retro video game cues that tickle the CPU of this long-retired 8-bit gamer. Questionable haircuts, obviously. And most of all, a sense of theatre. “They have their own entry planned,” confides Chris B, with justified trepidation as the pack leader leaps to the stage, kicks off the funky opening loops and busts out the first of 40 solid minutes of wild dance moves.

The first genuine track of the set, Encounter, has a hint of Portishead sans precision as it takes a moment to settle before all players fall into line, which they do as soon as a backbeat is provided. The push-pull continues, however, as exactitude is sacrificed for energy, which you might say is fair enough. There’s a nice 6/8 feel here which never fails to establish motion. Then on to Lingering, an energetic number, again with a dash of chaos. It isn’t clear which instrument is leading at which time, but the 8-bit synth arpeggio is loveable and the classical piano trashing out alongside drums is a nice touch. Heads are nodding.

Unburden begins with a bagpipe sound – no wait, those are real bagpipes. An inspired guest spot, summoning the spirit of That Dog in its bizarre mashup of classical instrumentation and experimental electric pop. As with that band, it isn’t all peanut butter and honey, but it’s an entertaining experiment. Soul Return Night leads with an interesting bass riff which breaks into a samba feel backed by an insistent, industrial whine. This picks up a synth triplet pattern which is bolstered by J-rock style drums and powerful classical piano once again. The ensuing maelstrom IS, for anyone who knows, the soundtrack to the classic C64 game Monty On The Run. Tears of nostalgia well up in my eyes.

Next, Lingering has a reprise, and it’s a reprieve too as our ears can relax to some relatively standard piano rock. There’s a suggestion this one isn’t as involving for the band but it’s a breather for all concerned. Voodoo is again up tempo; while my friend suggests James Bond, I can’t get past the deliciously retro synth sounds. Do You Understand is the true-to-form closer and features the most illuminated major chord ending I’ve ever experienced in a bar setting.

The Glareless may be a little loose in the execution, but they’re brimming over with ideas, energy and passion. In sum, a ton of fun.

— Brendan Clift


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Life Was All Silence

  1. Behind The Mercury
  2. Human Traffic
  3. Falling Wall
  4. Improvise
  5. Damascus

Life Was All Silence are an experienced collective who have adopted the gothic/vampiric aesthetic purveyed by a few other notable denizens of this 24-hour city. Black-clad and contemplative, they begin hunched over their instruments with their backs to the audience, and as noodling morphs into the first track proper it becomes clear that that’s how they’re going to stay.

Behind The Mercury presents an ethereal waltz, like a gothic marionette show played out in an incomprehensible dialect, twirling lifeless through a dusty mansion. In the finest tradition of creepy dolls, it eventually reveals itself to be murderous, driven by jarring chords and chopping drums and pulsing bass. It’s no exaggeration to say this music is able to create genuine discomfort in its audience; that is some achievement.

Human Traffic switches mood entirely, with a bassline reminiscent of Birdland and drums of Shaft. As it develops, shades of cold grey move to dominate the sound, but brightness cuts through like beams of sunshine after a week of heavy atmospheric weather. Proficient and extremely crisp. Next, Falling Wall has the audience breathing easy again, steady and unthreatening.

Improvise returns to the darker sound, with wailing synths and irregular toc-toc-tocs from the drums keeping the audience jumpy and off-balance. Perfect North Asian horror movie material. This is resolved by the final track, Damascus, which provides a regular beat and, although still dark, is far more kinetic than its predecessors. Its energy suggests action and requires less restraint, and it showcases the group’s exceptional time and highly sophisticated arrangements.

By remaining with their backs to the audience, Life Was All Silence invited the audience to ‘follow them’ into their world. Non-aural expression, whether lyrics or body language, would be a distraction from their art; it was therefore excised and pinpoint focus maintained. Alternatively, it was pretentious, arrogant and alienating; by refusing eye contact and nullifying body language, they were stripping away an important element of performance and a means to engage with the audience on more than one level. Or maybe it had some other effect, or maybe none at all. It’s up to you to decide for yourself.

–Brendan Clift

Poster by ​Becky Wong​
Photos by Angus Leung
海報由Becky Wong。
由​Angus Leung攝影。

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