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Joseph Tham

X’Ho, Singapura Uber Alles, Warner Music, 2010.


This might just be the album I have been waiting for X’Ho (previously known as Chris Ho) to make. From the very title, Singapura Uber Alles, a double entendre of a line from the German national anthem associated with its Nazi past [1] as well as one of the most infamous songs penned by legendary San Franciscan punk group, Dead Kennedys [2], this CD album is both polemical and humourously satirical. And if we look at the cover of this album, the swastika and Nazi-inspired military regalia and décor are another slap in the face of the supposed target of X’Ho’s lyrics – the Republic of Singapore. I thought Singapore was once accused of being communist/socialist, but well, that is another story…

X’Ho is not the conscience of this island republic; no, he is instead the embodiment of what the conscience of this bland society wants so desperately to articulate: the inversion of its id and ego. As X’Ho sings, everything must be justified, but to whom? Who is asking anyway? [3]

At one glance, X’Ho seems to be talking about what George Orwell’s 1984 predicted back in the 1950s but in fact, 1984 is now passé.[4] With the onslaught of neo-capitalist capitalism from the 1980s onwards, even Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is inadequate to point us in the right direction. Most people are not even aware that neo-liberal capitalist ideas are all around us; this is because it purportedly is THE reality, just like scientism today. X’Ho is trying to not remind us, but to our horror, to inform us, that there is this overarching and all-consuming hegemonic umbrella which we are living under.

X’Ho’s tribute to one of the most influential ideologues of the twentieth century and beyond, William Seward Burroughs, in one of the songs on this album is an honourable act on his part but perhaps it might be an act of futility after all. Taking the last words of mythical Persian legend “Hassan-I Sabbah”, William S. Burroughs propagated the saying “Nothing is true, everything is permissible” through his books and teachings. This has been seen as subversive, amoral, countercultural and dangerous (after all, Burroughs was considered by the CIA then as one of the most dangerous minds in the world) and has inspired countless artists, musicians, outsiders and refuse-niks. However, the current zeitgeist has subverted it and now it is probably more realistic to declaim that “Everything is permitted, but nothing is possible”. All over the world, subversive and countercultural movements, art forms and strains have been repackaged and re-presented to the public as museum/art gallery retrospective, archival exhibitions and publications. They enthrall the contemporary consumers but are nothing more than that, really.

I have digressed, but coming back to X’Ho’s newest slab of plastic, he is doing Singaporeans a service by, hopefully, educating us on the not-so-savoury stuff of the republic. But politics aside, this is a good album. Moving on from his two previous albums where he attempted “singer-songwriter” folk (No Ordinary Country) and dark wave/black metal tinted ambiance (Baphomet Sacrum) accompanying his words, Singapura Uber Alles, is better fitted and seamlessly integrated with his messages/observations. The fact that X not only references Dead Kennedys in the album title but covers a song by the lead singer of the group, Jello Biafra (with pioneer doom/sludge rock band, the Melvins) – “Voted Off The Island” – displays his aligning of his personal beliefs with the agit-prop songs and deeply political lifestyle and career of said punk singer. This is just one of the many examples where the album successfully foregrounds the influences of X’Ho’s idiosyncratic taste in music.

The songs are varied in style and genre but when put together they work. This must be attributed to the choice of the musical forms X has chosen: industrial, punk, metal, dark ambient, etc. which are generally associated with and favoured by politically outspoken or culturally anti-social musicians and artists for the past three decades or so. Take “Fist Paradise”, a sonic sturm und drang which is an adrenalin-pumping mix/mash-up of the Beatles, Detroit proto-punk group The Stooges, and punk music. It sets the pace and tone of the collection as the opening track and kick-starts the album with a bang.

The following two tracks, “Economic Wonder Parts 1 and 2” are a mini-suite so to speak, as one segues into the other. Musically it is an ethereal take on jazz giant Miles Davis’ electric period of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. The improvising flow of part 1 is deliciously executed, avoiding jamming-style self-indulgence but instead focusing on evoking a surreal and slightly uneasy mood which carries the track into its second half where Singapore-pop guru, Dick Lee and others do a dreamy a-capella to the tonal drift of the track.

The title track, “Singapore Uber Alles”, is a relentless free-rock tour-de-force of X’ Ho and his collaborator, Marc Chia of One Man Nation (currently an up-and-coming artist based in Europe touring the avant-garde/noise/improv circuit there). The free-form noise attack of Chia’s guitar with X’s words and delivery is, as he has mentioned in the sleeve notes to the track, “spontaneous combustion”. It is then followed by another powerful track which features Singapore all-round artist, Zai Kunning, with his guitar and his singing on “Hail Big Bro”. The sublime non-Western-scale free-folk playing on Zai’s six- string is a treat for those searching beyond the drab world of world pop fusion or folk pop which populates the Real World Records-sponsored “Womad” festivals. A meeting of minds and creativity, the track is one of the peaks of the disc.

As one delves into the second half of the CD, “Die Die Justify” is a standout. (this track originally appeared in Songs for Sam, the 2006 benefit compilation for victims of capital punishment) Inspired by popular smash TV sitcom of the United Kingdom, Little Britain, it oozes with detached cynical pokes at the republic; the “yea-but-noo-but-yea…” refrain from the sitcom which is quoted by X here is an excellent demonstration of the schizophrenia of the neo-liberal capitalist milieu. Self-serving and self-fulfilling in nature, the new economic direction and the ideological justification behind it by (gasp!) the countries in the world, Singapore included of course, seems to coincide with what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari have written in their seminal tome, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, published in the early 1970s, a decade before the form of neo-liberal capitalism took shape. Uncanny.

The “Fascism has to be Italian???” line from “Fascism, Meh?” is a jibe at the ignorance of the masses in Singapore. Musically, it is a powerhouse honk inspired by free jazz/fire music greats Albert Ayler and Charles Gayle, bulldozing through the duration of the piece with the ecstatic energy of the inspired Civil Rights Movement decade of the 1960s. This is followed by “Sxxx More”, a track which starts off with glitch staccated rhythms of milestone electronic music record label, Mille Plateaux (taken from Deleuze & Guttari’s “sequel” to Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus) of the late 1990s and early 2000s and gradually transmogrifying into the industrial klang towards the end. Both tracks harness the raw drive and surge of the musical forms to bring the meanings of X’s words to the fore.

X’s ode to death penalty recipient, Shanmugam Murugesu, in the track, “An Open Letter To Shanmugam”, is not merely a critique of the Singapore system of justice but a hint at a larger scheme of things. The various attempts of appealing on behalf of the convict prior to his execution are seen as acceptable platforms of dissent in form but not necessarily in essence, just like punk today has risen from the zero acceptance of the past to the heroic popular cultural iconic status, as the anti-social stances of the movement has been re-channeled and ultimately re-presented as one of the many options of fashion statements in the twenty-first century. The seemingly more tolerant attitude of the authorities towards different viewpoints, ideas and stands might not be as benign as it seems. With the liberating powers of the internet, they have been forced to open up and be more accepting towards the people’s viewpoints, but it also means that the critical strengths behind the political dialectics and social criticism (which provided much fuel for the youths in the 1950s/1960s/1970s to question and take action against the powers-that-be then) are lost in the sea of bland corporate-sponsored and internet-enabled free-for-all of the day. The press release of the album begins with a quote from renowned music journalist and writer Mark Fisher, from his review of the recent re-issue of the English anarcho-commune punk group, Crass’s first album, Feeding Of the 500. It is recognition of the influence of the group’s ideas and practices but one wonders what purpose does a group or an album like this serve in the world today. An irony, as the more freedom one seems to get, the less one is able to achieve.

The album is a meaningful trip to embark on. A Singapore’s thinking-person’s album for the twenty-first century, X’Ho in his prime is proving that he is the local Henry Rollins (of legendary hardcore punk band, Black Flag [5]) without the pumped-up aggro bravura; the island’s Genesis P-Orridge [6] (of pioneer industrial music groups, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) but with the awkward mystical bent removed. In other words, X Ho succeeds in this album to be the Phil Ochs [7] of the republic with enough savvy and intellect to touch minds and hearts, if you care to be.


Notes

[1] The first stanza of German national anthem “Deutschlandlied” which starts off with the line “Deutschland Uber Alles…” [Germany above all] has been associated with the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s as the Third Reich had famously used only this stanza from the anthem.

[2] The Dead Kennedys song, “California Uber Alles”, was written from the perspective of then Californian governor, Jerry Brown. The lyrics are about the governor imagining a “hippie-fascist” vision for America using secret police and gas chambers as his tools of coercion on the people.

[3] The problematic relationship between the id and ego as proposed by Sigmund Freud in human psychology: which is doing the talking and which has to do the justifying in whatever action we are involved? The one controlling is doing the justifying as well, hmm…

[4] The Cold War and the fortified mindset of one political camp against the other, harnessed by the powers-that-be to justify their surveillance and authoritarian rule in a blatant and relatively simplistic manner, has been replaced by more insidious ways, e.g. the ideology that money and economic progress is everything and thus, competition above everything else with the token nod and nominal lip-service paid to issues like ecology, humanitarian concerns and philanthropy to shut up the dissenting voices against the current politico-corporate-military complexes. Today, surveillance is needed for our security against trans-national based terrorism. But there is no longer an “us versus them” scenario as the triumph of capitalism-liberal democracy which mutated to its current form of neo-liberal capitalism reigns supreme.

[5] Black Flag was a South Californian hardcore punk band in the early to mid 1980s which was both celebrated and reviled for their staunchly “do-it-yourself” attitude with their own record label, SST. Angry, independent and critical of the world around them, the band went on to help build the American underground of the 1980s which the various independent scenes all over the continent should still feel thankful for today.

[6] Genesis P-Orridge is one of the masterminds behind Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. An irrepressible art provocateur, intellectual, modern-day pagan mystic and to some charlatan, he has been questioning the mainstream since the mid 1970s through his art, music and writings. He has been the target of many right-wing/law enforcement backlashes and seen by many to be an inspiration and role model in the countercultural landscape since the 1980s.

[7] The comparison between X’Ho and Phil Ochs is not exactly an apt one. Phil Ochs, in the 1960s, was often persecuted by the authorities for his left-leaning, anti-Vietnam War and anti-authority stance in his life and his songs. A singer-songwriter of integrity whose health deteriorated due to what he witnessed around him as well as to his own substance abuse. However both have been regarded as the voice of conscience in their respective contexts.

Joseph Tham is a history teacher who used to run the indie record shop, Flux-us and was a founding member of the experimental band, I/D. He has been researching on the cultural avant-garde and experimental music for years. He blogs on music and underground culture at www.psychmetalfreak.blogspot.com


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