Leslie Low, formerly of Twang Bar Kings and more famously Humpback Oak, is a paragon of tender introspection and a natural troubadour of the finest caliber. As he challenges himself moving into fresher territories with each new music project, he proves to us that his is a voice so pure in intent and emotion, it never fails to ring true. Put plainly, there’s not a false note in his entire body of work and he’s been making music for some three decades now.
A couple of years back, the band he currently fronts – The Observatory – made a big move to go into music full-time. Considering how tough it is for many to earn a living from making non-top40 music in Singapore, it is a bold venture. The move resulted in the departure of sound-artist Evan Tan and it appears to rattle the stability of the band despite how Low with band-mates – Vivian Wang, Dharma and Victor Low – have come up with what can now be considered their most powerful album to date, the fifth and latest titled Catacombs. With Victor switching from guitar to drums, the band appears to have recouped its strength with a primal energy. There’s a newfound edge coming from a revision of its prowess as a leaner core-bound outfit.
This dark and portentous new album Catacombs (released in April 2012) – produced by the band itself with Jorgen Traeen and recorded in Singapore and Norway – is nothing like what fans have expected, yet it is also not entirely unexpected of a band whose last album was the artful and mystical sounding Dark Folke.
Catacombs is, to say the least, something of a brave progress from the ‘electronica rock’ of its predecessors, not just in terms of spirit and adventure from that lineage but for its grungy, ominous sound from deep beyond the grave, not to mention Leslie’s new ‘monodrone’ melodies. If the last was truly ‘dark folk’, Catacombs is really dark ambient/noise-rock, sidestepping even post-rock to embrace ‘soundscape’ noise full-on in industrial shades and discordant tones of black (metal) fuzz, cerebral drones and ambient-rock distortions. It’s as if the Observatory has morphed into Sunn O))) and Blut Aus Nord in a place several levels underground of its last repose Dark Folke.
The Observatory’s new musical language may not sit well with some but to those who get it, it feels like the album the band has been setting out to make throughout its ten years of existence. It also feels like the Observatory has finally arrived – finally, grandly arrived – shedding off all residual hints of a Humpback Oak-extension-reincarnate to arrive at a brave new world of its own truth and dare. With this, it has gone from chamber folk to chamber noise in one broad stroke.
A ‘signature’ (synth) trumpet motif opens the album with a brief instrumental Peace & Quiet – a prelude to, as if, suggest a bygone alternative lost in a catacomb world of mayhem. What follows is Headworm, a crushing introduction of that world, offering an innervision of “the headworms in my head”. (Worm, by the way, is the title of Leslie’s 2006 second solo album.) “You have been with me through thick & thin,” Leslie sings in a sonorous voice of a “languishing spirit”, thick with foreboding delight (unlike the gentle ruminations in the solo Worm) of what could be termed a far cry from previous Observatory fare. This delicious dark rumble rolls into a roar on the album before simmering down to a tell-all finale at the end (Anger & Futility), which also begins with Peace & Quiet’s trumpet signature. Catacombs is, perhaps, a song-cycle?
It has been suggested that “civilized madness” (mentioned in Headworm) is a theme on the album. More is revealed in what follows. Next is the title-track – a wailing (at least by Leslie’s standard) cacophony of polyrhythms hinged on a resonant twang-guitar riff. “When the stooges come/Say I’m away” as a lyric reveals ‘catacombs’ to be not so much an exploration of a wormed mind, but a complex escape-route for the disenchanted. Accidentagram confirms this with its theme of the manacled and as a ghostly lament and lullaby for the living dead, as is surely intended.
It is Insomnia that holds the key to the album’s theme. The song, a desolate soundscape of limbering guitar-lines, weary (synth) horns and ethereal vocals is pretty close to an out-of-body experience, converging with and spiraling into “a hall of worms”. How has the ‘introspection’ taken on such a dark mindscape? Just as clothes maketh a man, the environment surely chooses its victims. “Pouring out of me, this blood… Can I let it go on, let it go on?” – a question that lingers as a sign of needed deliverance beckoning from mind-trapping catacombs. Lyrically as well as musically, with its riotous sonic plunges and atonal dark flourishes, Catacombs is all about connecting with the togetherness of ‘otherness’. It is a subversive cry of distaste for manacles, with enough rumination to mask some of the subversion as a catalyst-combing through. One could even say that it celebrates the twisted power one derives from the tyranny of evil – in both sense of the ‘one’ & its other, as oppressor and oppressed. (How can X’ Ho not love this album?)
Earlier before, in the song The Argument, we were introduced to a family of iniquity where the son asks the father – “What does mother say of our evil ways?” Again, that ‘family’ reappears in the superb One-Dimensional One (musically, imagine a singer-songwriter-style abstraction of black metal) – a nether-world paean to the king of the jungle where the rule is “uglier than a monkey’s pattern of behavior”, a “mental machinery” which we can’t even begin to comprehend in mere words of its “one dimensional” state. (The song draws its inspiration from French social-theorist Michel Foucalt’s Madness & Civilization; just as an earlier track Ends To No Means contains an adapted excerpt from pioneering psychiatrist Thomas Willis’ work in Opera Omnia.)
Penultimate track Out Of The Furrow seems to suggest an avenue for deliverance – “Bounds are set by you and I…. We are us and them.” Alas, if the album ended there, it may not deserve its tagged notion of a black-metal alliance (Sunn O))) not!). However, Catacombs ends with an appetite for destruction but in Leslie’s low undertow of pensive invocation, sung in an ‘other’ form of peace and quiet: “Take this island away/sink it to the sea/put it behind bars… Take the minstrels away/propel them into the sky/so they can explode/like fireworks on August 9th.” The indictment doesn’t get any plainer than that.
Someday in the future, some pop historian is gonna look back and say – Catacombs marks the beginning of a new horizon in local music for the sheer fact that waywardness in Singapore’s ultra-leftfield, alternative-rock has been deemed fetching and unanimously praised with this album.
Indeed, the guys in The Observatory have outdone themselves this time – garnering not only deserved acclaim but also outlining a new path of resistance to conformity on levels of social-conscious out-there music. Dare call it avant garde in both music and thought still? All at once, Catacombs has sealed togetherness in otherness for Singapore music in 2012, where a truly progressive spirit is finally embraced as a far-reaching acceptable norm. Perhaps, the time is simply right. But whatever it is, the future begins here.
(i) You can buy Catacombs from http://www.theobservatory.com.sg/
(ii) Our regular contributor, Joseph Tham’s interview with the Ob can be found here:
but Victor has since left the band and Bani has joined them.