Live review from Swiftly Rising:
1. Coming Home
2. Only Tears
3. One Last Night
4. And I Know I Wanna
5. Lost Paradise

The first performer of the night was Vaun, the lead singer of Magic Mountain Bells. I reviewed the band two and a half months ago (before Vaun lost his voice and only regained it recently) and had no idea until I walked in with two cocktails spilling and heard his distinctively clear voice. While Magic Mountain Bells has been around for no more than about a year, Vaun has been writing for over 20 years. And his experience shows – when discussing his compositions, he’s technical and structured, laying out the purpose of each musical section and layer.

But his trained up experience hasn’t stopped him from embracing new technology.

“If you need advice,” he said as I tried very hard not to spill alcoholic pink foam over the floor. “Use AI”.

“It’s a tool”, he continued. “You as the composer can choose and change it to how its supposed to sound”

In fact, he even admitted to one of Magic Mountain Bells’ first songs being written by AI – something that I didn’t realise at all when reviewing them previously.

His first song was ‘Coming Home’, a Magic Mountain Bells song that reflects how every member of the band is an immigrant but now all see Hong Kong as their home.
Without the band to back him up, Vaun’s persona was entirely different. In contrast to the manly, rehearsed front-man persona at The Fringe in April, this Vaun was intimate and friendly, admitting to mistakes and to his lack of guitar skills (you’re fine don’t worry).

Nonetheless, even when performing solo, the sections for each song were clear and distinct from the lyrical strummed verses to the driving bass riffs. He explained to the audience how when writing any song for the band, certain sections are written to be heavier, with the whole band joining in so that the audience can also join in, while others are meant to be more performative. “We are always thinking about audience interaction”.

When asked about his writing process, especially for the band, Vaun said that writing is a collaborative process. “A lot of songs are written and produced together”, he said. “The song just now was written when a friend was just jamming; we built on top of each other – I built on top with my vocals, the bassist wrote the bridge”. That clearly explained why the bridge was so bass heavy and driving – teamwork, it seems, does in fact make the dream work.

Another song “One Last Night” was also a song from Magic Mountain Bells. The song is about addiction and he last performed it on 4/20. Make of that what you will. Here Vaun explored his use of AI a bit more “Some of the melody was written by AI”, he explained “It took about 20 different takes for the AI to give us something we finally found good”. What was surprising, not just to me but to the whole audience, was that you really couldn’t tell it was written by an AI – that’s because he, and the band, workshopped that ideas from AI into the song holistically changing parts of it, adding layers, adding lines and overall turning it from a generated idea into something real. “You have to be really good at prompting”, he explained further”. Lesson: don’t just expect the computer to do everything for you.

A particular treat for the more educational than usual evening was Only Tears, a rock ballad that he premiered that night that is still in its workshopping stage. “It’s likely to change a lot before being played by the band”, he said. The song was a little bit folk, reminiscent of Glen Hansard’s lyrical folk rock ballads but with simpler lyrics and riffs, as expected from Vaun and Magic Mountain Bell’s easily accessible style.

Although Vaun is currently still mostly known as the frontman of Magic Mountain Bells, tonight showed how he is perfectly capable of standing alone. In fact, I personally like him more as a solo performer. Without the responsibility of leadership and driving massive crowds, his performance was less perfect but also less corporate. Even though there were a few slips here and there, the intimacy more than made up for it. Then again, a good musician is capable of performing in many different ways with many different people and if anything, this performance has shown that Vaun is not just experienced, but knowledgeable, friendly and versatile and definitely someone to look out for wherever he goes.

Or maybe he’s a heavily prompted AI generated android, who knows.
– Cyril Ma

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Performances by Vaun: