Live Review from Songs without Words

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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Performances by Topsy-wave: