This was a journey into the unknown for me. Of the bands playing here tonight, I confess I didn’t any of them before tonight. It was two members of Weot Skam, who were supposed to be playing, who gave me first notice of this extravaganza at Penang’s iconic venue, the Soundmaker studio. Still, part of the fun was researching the participating bands, some of whom find themselves in even greater obscurity than your average underground band. But thanks largely to the most informative https://uniteasia.org, Komal from the Ruas record store https://www.facebook.com/RuasXstore and a few fruitful and fruitless searches around the usual web sources, I established that this was going to be an interesting evening, some of which might even meet my own off the wall musical taste. The concert itself and tour title (Feels Like Home Tour) was the first of nine to promote the headlining band’s latest album.
Malaysia’s rock and metal scene is vibrant, if not in any way mainstream. Tonight’s bands came from various regions. Ironically and disappointingly Weot Skam who could legitimately claim Penang as their home couldn’t make it tonight, but such is the way of things. Seven bands became five as E’fil dropped out too. I was intrigued to see how many spectators were going to turn out tonight. My expectations were as in a regional venue in the UK: a hard core of the local population, and support for the other bands. With an advertised start time of 5pm, my honourable informant and friend Leon Low tipped me off that it would start “a bit late”, and so we rocked up at about 6.30. Around 20 people were there, rising to over 50 quite quickly as the evening progressed. The external appearance of the venue, which to be fair is being replaced, was in a state of dilapidation, making even London’s Electrowerkz palatial, but the music hall itself was audience and band-friendly. The place reeked of underground musical endeavour and smoke. I was impressed that the merch stand was well stocked, with all sorts of goodies including bizarrely a copy of Reader’s Digest, and more pertinently material from tonight’s bands who had come admirably prepared.
It was 8.30pm and after much to-ing and fro-ing, Seriate stepped up to lead the journey. Seriate have an EP called “Kunnas”, which sounds Finnish to me. The band is from Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is always referred to in these parts). Indeed Kunnas means Kingdom in Finnish, but as to why a band from Malaysia would have an album title in Finnish appears one of life’s mysteries to go with famous ProgPower moments involving Russian hats, black flags and pictures of Bryan Ferry. To say that Seriate play ambient instrumental rock in accordance with the description would sound pretty boring, and furthermore would be incorrect, although that is the generic style. A drummer and guitarist populated the ample stage. What I heard was grumbly, tight and occasionally harsh post metal outpourings. The guitarist bent down and a squally sound came forth. The progressions were interesting and there was something experimental about this. This set had the air of a session, not helped by the fact there were only two people taking part in it like mates together. But to their credit, the duo weren’t overwhelmed and gathered energy to deliver what I can only describe as an adventure. The session had a plan, consisted of post metal a plenty in the vein of Neurosis, but so too there were rumbles of thunder and surges of power mixed with sludge, psychedelia and even a burst of rock and roll. It was clear that Seriate are not frightened to change tack or sound structure, and so there was an element of avant-garde. This eclectic melting pot with its disparate but well channelled passages was both vibrant and interesting. As well as exceeding reasonable expectations with their alternative style, the duo were gracious and crowd-friendly on a personal level and very easy to warm to. Great job, Seriate!
Curiosity killed the cat. In order to solve the mystery of “Kunnas”, I tackled the band afterwards. They were unaware that Kunnas means anything in Finnish, but I learnt that it does mean “invisible black hole” in Arabic. This explains a lot. I also established that Seriate normally operate as a three piece, and that one of the songs “Noktah”, which means something like Period of Time, reflects the personal and musical development of the guitarist and the friendship within the band. As I had surmised, ideas precede the riffs and what the guitarist called “the sequential parts”. I was greatly impressed with their thoughtfulness, which undoubtedly is reflected in the interesting musical patterns, and moreover I now know what Kunnas means in two languages.
Satyagraha is one of the most obscure bands I have ever had to research. It was thanks to Komal at the Ruas record store that I found out they are from Perlis in Malaysia, and not any of the similarly named bands from other parts of the world. The name means social protest as instigated by Ghandi against British colonial rule, which might give a clue, but the set they played gave no indication of rebellious intent. But that’s not to say they weren’t interesting. At 9.10pm an Eastern vibe filled the air. Waves of sound reverberated through the room. The chordsmanship was deliberate, as the self-titled “Satyagraha” built up and and developed into moody, crusty, ponderous, psychedelic doom – wow. Dark and murky sludge oozed out. Satyagraha were three hours late in playing but hey, no hurry and it seemed worth the wait. Then it went downhill as we went through a series of stages, starting with a tribal drum beat and strange rock n roll pattern leading to fuzzy and dusty thrash metal. They then left me behind completely, as the rock n roll came with hardcore and both indistinguishable and completely out of tune vocals. “Alternative” would be an understatement. Satyagraha got the biggest cheer of the night at this point from a largely mute audience. The canvas changed again as Satyagraha launched into an ambient soundscape with a sampled tribal drum driving forward like a freight train. The level of intensity increased and the atmosphere became that of constant attritional warfare. This was the most unusual and schizophrenic of performances. One of the band members did explain this to me afterwards, telling me that Satyagraha had got together as a jam band, and were now finding their way and deciding where they wanted to be musically. On the basis of this performance, I’d say the answer lies in atmospheric doom.
Crack Guilty from KL play a riff-solid, American-influenced classic heavy rock style. They might call it alternative rock but I’d call it sounding like Queens of the Stone Age, who to be fair the band do acknowledge as a “like”. Here I am torn. On the one hand, I think what’s the point unless you’re an out and out tribute? It’s fine if you’re looking for a good night in the pub with some mates, some beers and music from the comfort zone. It’s not adventurous. On the other hand Crack Guilty are tight and know how to work a riff. Their songs are not original but they are catchy. The drummer set the tone, and the band worked well together. There was even a moment of Hawkwind psychedelia. Interestingly the crowd wasn’t visibly lifted even though Crack Guilty was the most dynamic band so far thanks to their style of play, which generated energy and power. Unfortunately I didn’t find it very interesting.
Soft seem to have appointed themselves as the alternative to the Ipoh tourist office. Their song “Dead Cities Ghost Town (Ipoh coldwave)” stands out. Their music is an intriguing mix of post punk, shoegazing decadence and distant discordance. I like it. Is Ipoh really that crappy? They should try Milton Keynes. I only went to Ipoh once. It was boiling hot as usual and to be fair I got side-tracked and spent the day drinking coffee with some Canadians, so my eyes missed any images of a dead city or emptiness, which these guys depict through their music. The gloom and grey soundscapes would seem to reflect their vision of home – see, I’m getting into the idea of this tour. Mischievously, I did ask the band about Ipoh’s negative qualities but didn’t really get an answer. The start was a struggle with sound connections, and eventually the set started at about 10.50pm. Soft immediately set about creating an impressive, indeed magical atmosphere through ringing post metal. The music was fresh and colourful. The drumbeat was strong. There was delicacy but soft it was not. Now here’s the rub. While filling the air with the clear and crispy atmosphere of a frosty day, Soft added touches of punk and a strong 1990s indie vibe. Fitting into this were the vocals. Unfortunately the sound mix wasn’t so good, and therefore the vocal line was hard to distinguish, but the tone was clear – haunting, dour, depressive and dark, thus making me see these post-metal patterns as something chilly and sinister. Soft could have been depicting the decadent 1990s industrial wastelands of Birmingham or Manchester or Grimsby. Manic walls of sound built up, while other parts were quiet but there was always a sense of personal melancholy and emptiness descending behind the thick walls of compelling heaviness, thunderous waves, and pungent post-metal. The intermittent punk energy and indie style gave this an urban feel but although not always apparent in this live set personal reflections feature too. It was hard in the absence of clear vocal sound to tell always what theme was being explored exactly. Looking round me, the crowd looked baffled but I thought this was an atmospheric treat. Each passage was mesmerising and intriguing. The movements captivated me and took me into Soft’s cold and edgy world. Paradoxically, I warmed quickly to Soft’s coldwave soundscapes. This is my kind of band. I do hope they come to play in the UK. They will undoubtedly find further inspiration in Milton Keynes and Manchester.
I found out afterwards that all the songs that Soft’s played came from their 2017 album “Nostalgia”, which I bought at the merch stand and look forward to listening to. The set list read as follows: Post Cabaret – Dark Bass Tortured – Heaven With You, My Adore and Sweet Love – Dead Cities, Ghost Town (Ipoh Coldwave) – Eternal Kiss and First Flowers – Tamar Salis – Grunge Glory.
The Facebook site https://www.facebook.com/lochmusic helpfully tells us that the correct pronunciation is “Lok”. Not if you’re from Scotland or Germany but Melaka-based band Loch would seem to be a precise bunch. The “Feels Like Home” tour epithet is in honour of Loch’s latest album, the slightly naff-sounding “Everywhere We Go, We Make This Like Home”. This was the first show of a nine stage promotional tour for the band. My first impression on listening to this instrumental quartet play was of peacefully sitting next to a river on a summer’s day, except that this is Malaysia and you’d be sweating your nuts off if you did this. The music had the technical groove of Canvas Solaris or The Parallax Method and I was reminded in the ambience of a very nice track by April Ethereal called “July Afternoon”. Loch’s music was indeed all very pleasant and mildly ambient, and it was all very harmless, just like home. On the other hand it bordered on being test card music or something you might hear in a trendy shop. Unlike Soft before them, there was no edge to it. The guitarist with the red woolly hat hitched his trousers up. The other guitarist next to him seemed to be mumbling and talking to himself – oh, he was introducing songs. They could do with tightening up on the presentation. In fairness to the mumbler, he wasn’t alone as song introductions had generally been mumbled or non existent throughout the evening. I do know that Loch has a song called “Kampong”, which is a term meaning village or rural community and has a hint of homely about it – I don’t know whether they played this but it reflects the cosiness of the band’s style. On our little journey with Loch we trotted through one pleasant scene after another, all played with technical twists and dexterity. It’s bucolic but not cutting edge and certainly wasn’t sending blood rushing through my veins. I looked around and wasn’t sure if my fellow spectators were transfixed or nodding off. To my surprise, there was the most polite request I’ve ever heard from a couple of spectators for an encore. The band duly obliged, so I braced myself for more shoegazing proggery. Unexpectedly the band sounded heavier and more prog, and suddenly developed an aggressive streak. Finishing with an experimental flourish? Well no, Loch reverted to type and we were sitting on the river bank again. Woolly Hat Man bent down to instil some subtlety in the sound, but whilst Loch are undoubtedly competent musicians and their music undoubtedly has ambience, Soft had spoiled me and raised my expectations beyond what I heard here.
Well, a number of bands from different parts of Malaysia came to Penang and made this their home for the night. All this proves that there’s plenty going on in this country besides eating and political machinations – the UK is not alone in this department. I heard some varied and interesting music and presentations of creative ideas. I met lots of great people and all in all, this was an excellent evening.
Review and Photos Andrew Doherty