Live review from Volkswagen x Underground Battle of the Bands Final 2017
In Japanese literature, there’s an old folktale regarding a book so terrifying, it’s said that all who hear it die of fright. Despite the honest friendliness of the band, Cow Head (the books namesake), likely had a similar impact on the other bands that night. I had heard them live once before, and the combined musicianship of each of the talented four-piece was used to create a fantastic and formidable wall of sound. As the opening act and with the addition of a violinist since last I saw them, I was doubly worried for the hearts of those that were due to follow.
The band’s ineffable stage presence could be felt even before they kicked-off. They carried themselves like the cool cats of jazz without the air of untouchable, the demeanor one perceives of those who know their stuff from inside-out.
The bands virtuosity immediately filled the room in the form of a shifting sonic-landscape, seamlessly tying together the Spanish-flamenco styled guitars that no doubt recalls Rodrigo y Gabriela, but blended with a strain of bossa-nova on crack-cocaine. A texture so thick, it couldn’t be cut with a butter knife was combined with a relentless rhythm. The audience bobbed their heads agreeably, and the floor vibrated faintly with toe-tapping to ‘NMT‘. (I’ve been told that NMT stands for No Musical Talent, don’t believe them!)
By the second song, it was evident that the band wasn’t in the slightest control of the music. Rather, the music was controlling them. A fantastic testament to the passion that Hong Kong bands hold in creating original music, a lovingly crafted set that let the music take over on stage for all of us. ‘Maze‘ saw the violin to good use, it’s legato phrasing complimenting the rapid, mandolin-esque playing of Simon on electric guitar. Had the band been any more in-sync at this point, they might’ve been fit to join a military marching band.
At this point, it must be noted of Ryan’s confident style of playing. Combined with his power-stance and beaming show-man’s grin throughout, it earned him every right to bagging the title of best-guitarist at the end of the night!
Black Pepper saw a fantastic fusion of bass-fills with an elaborate air of classical. Cow Head regularly collaborates with local artists, most recently folk group ‘Sea Island & Ferry’, which perhaps leads to the remarkable open-mindedness of their music. Cow Head have a knack for being able impress an audience, without ever seeming to mean to. This came out especially as the band swept through tempo changes flawlessly, an awesome display of musical talent that comes naturally, not as a means of egotistical showboating.
A tight set that transcended the boundaries of genre, and a shame that the band was only able to win one award that night!
– Ryan Harling
Live review from Mellow Yellow
Pity the reviewer who had to rate Cow Head’s performance. Not because the local instrumental quartet failed to deliver at The Hub – but because there was so much going on that it was a challenge to unpick the band’s influences and work out what made the show so special.
Opener Summer Wind was a midnight stroll through Rio, with Latin rhythm guitar and softly-patted cajon. Second track NMT (“No Musical Talent”? Pah!) ramped up the energy with metallic scratching and rapid, almost Celtic picking that recalled the duality and dynamism of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Electro-acoustic guitarist Ryan Wan showed considerable skill, which suggested he had studied the music of Joaquin Rodriguez. However, his guitar was so loud in the mix that it was very audible if he accidentally muted a note while his fingers flew over the frets. Meanwhile, his fellow guitarist Simon Choi used harmonics and phaser distortion to great effect, taking the song into psychedelic territory over Wai-leung Wu’s tango bassline, which gave the track a traditional tether.
It was time to play “guess the tune” on third song, Turkish. The group took Mozart’s instantly-recognisable Rondo Alla Turca and gave it a fiery mariachi-esque makeover. The performance was pure revelry, with some particularly jaw-dropping fretwork from the flamboyant Wan. With his lovingly-picked strings, Wu took the spotlight for Life, which took on a Stairway to Heaven meandering rock ballad vibe.
Maze began with rapid, flamenco strumming from Choi, before he was joined by Wan on a gondola of mandolin-style tremolo. The song blossomed into a toe-tapping bossa nova number, with stomping cajon, rumba bass and high fretwork from the duelling guitars. Percussionist Ying-chung Wong led a mass click-along as the bass tension heightened, the tempo slowed and the Pink Panther practically slunk out of the speakers. But this was a momentary diversion before the band burst back into Spanish rhythms to end the dramatic song.
Final song Black Pepper incorporated a strong riff over sultry bass and windswept guitar flourishes. The closer took on a prog feel as the tempo and the direction took a turn for the classical. Wan drew upon his classical influences as the two guitar players worked soaring melodies and jangling chords alongside Wong’s joyful shouts, hand-clapping and a bass bobbing with snake-hipped rhythm
With so many genres and flavours blended into the mix, Cow Head’s set could have been a dizzying mess. Instead, four charismatic and extremely competent musicians gave a theatrical and infectiously fun performance that was both thrilling and energising to witness.
– El Jay