1. A Little Piece of The Sun
2. Risk Factor
3. Fall With You
4. Find Our Way
6. Gotta Make It
7. Better Than This
8. Talking to Myself
9. The Malevolent Shadow
Cracklebox’s newest album Intimacy of Strangers is a tour de force of catchy, powerful pop songs that, unlikely many other Hong Kong English bands, are local in flavour and topical in content. The name of the album can mean many different things but it’s primarily about the band’s soul as being from four different people hailing from four different countries meeting in Hong Kong. It’s an artistic expression of what it feels like to live, work and explore a bustling international metropolis like Hong Kong. Full of stories and characters that at times work together and at other times contrast, Intimacy of Strangers is a brilliant representation of the international Hong Kong spirit.
You don’t have to search very hard to find clear references to the city’s stories and culture. In fact it’s on the very cover. This is supposed to be a music review, but if I could just spend one second on the cover – Is it not just absolutely gorgeous? On the surface, the images seem like a bunch of unrelated items spouting out of the two characters’ heads but look a little closer and the local references become clear. See the neon pawn shop sign in the right? Or how about the very Standard Chartered looking building in the centre right?
Even the art style itself is a roundabout hidden reference. Pop and urban art inspired, Intimacy of Strangers’ cover with its trains of thought manifesting as colourful ‘random’ objects, is common across Hong Kong’s modern art scene. Just look at the new art museum façade in TST and you’ll know exactly what I mean! Local Cantonese bands picked up this design years ago (see my review of Five Dollar Tux’s ‘Urban’ for example) so it’s great to see the English side of Hong Kong also following suit.
Moving swiftly on to the point of this review – the music. Just about every track is well written, sensationally performed and incredibly memorable. It’s not often that you get a song stuck in your head on first listen, but I found myself humming the second track, Risk Factor night and day after hearing it. Risk Factor is by far the song that is most tied to the band’s Hong Kong origins. It tells in an abstract way the real story of 61-year-old Cheung Kam-Fai who died setting himself on fire on the MTR in 2017. Bankrupt, psychologically unstable and facing the prospect of a divorce with his children leaving, he cursed the world and poured gasoline on himself and several other passengers whilst the MTR was travelling between TST and Admiralty. Some victims were severely hurt though luckily the only casualty was Cheung himself. It’s not an easy story to tell and one that is still quite topical having only happened but two years ago.
Risk Factor begins with sounds of MTR announcements blurring in and out and suddenly stops when the guitar starts riffing. Then the singing begins with ‘I’m here in a glass box’. Behind the band is an electronic wall of sound creating the ‘glass box’ and similarly representing a later line ‘trapped in a bubble’. The song is fast, it’s upbeat, it’s catchy but it’s also claustrophobic and suffocating. The lyrics don’t always seem to be directly related to Cheung’s suicide attempt with simple pop clichés such as ‘Words I never thought I say’ being some of the song’s most memorable lyrics. Is this a problem? Possibly, but it’s worth mentioning that the persona of the song doesn’t seem to be the same person. Sometimes perhaps you’re seeing the world through Cheung’s eyes, sometimes perhaps it’s through the eyes of constable Lai Chun-Hee who spoke to Cheung at the train station before sending him to hospital, maybe you’re a simple bystander. Towards the end, after an extended middle eight and a banging guitar solo, the lyrics go ‘Finally the train is on fire’ an unmistakable reference but one that is passive – did ‘we’ set the train on fire? Or were we just carried along by the song to the scene of the crime? Finally, the song ends with a morbid couplet ‘The reflection on the door, it’s me that’s on the floor’.
Whilst Risk Factor is incredibly local in its content, the main concept of the album wasn’t necessarily to tell real stories of Hong Kong but to express musically the city’s colourful, international life. To this end, almost every song is a different genre but joined together through a consistent pop feel. Eve¸ for example, is a creative ballad that begins with plucked chords and harmonica creating a vast, relaxing field of sound. Soon after the introduction however, the emptiness gets filled up with synthesizers, drums, keyboards and more guitars. Exploring this gradual build up of intensity, by the second chorus, a rock feel starts to appear with the guitars taking on more and more distortion culminating with a virtuosic yet never too over the top electric solo that clears back to the song’s opening relaxing field. The music is beautiful with or without the lyrics but when taken together, as with Risk Factor, we get a musical drama of love, nostalgia and fireworks as we finish the countdown on New Year’s Eve (kept that theme nicely hidden didn’t I?).
The final track I’d like to take a look at comes right after Eve. Gotta Make It/Better Than This is a two-part song formed of a piano solo (Gotta Make It) followed by a straightforward grungy, pop-rock song that talks about government accountability and how we should all strive to become a better society. How very topical. With a catchy melody, simple but well written lyrics, punky guitar riffs and a careful use of post-prod effects; Better Than This is a powerful and effective yet easily understandable pop song. Gotta Make It is in contrast calm, collected and probably closer to some of the album’s more classical/jazz inspired tracks such as Fall With You or The Malevolent Shadow (both of which heavily feature the piano sometimes with very Baroque writing) but in my opinion, this contrast is deliberate as it makes the powerful, loud opening of Better Than This all the more unexpected. And of course, the hook of the lyrics goes ‘We Gotta Make it Better Than This’ so it all works together.
Cracklebox set out to write an album of songs exploring how all the members of the band are foreigners yet found each other in Hong Kong. They’ve done exactly that and how brilliantly they did it too. Intimacy of Strangers is a real pleasure, a rare treasure in Hong Kong English pop. There isn’t a single song in the album that isn’t creatively written and brilliantly performed. I’ll be following the band closely with the hope that by just being in the same room, some of their creativity might rub off on me.
– Cyril Ma
The album can be purchased from the following outlets: Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp & Soundcloud.