Posted: 21st August, 2020 by The Editor
Friendship International is a monthly tribute to the emo and alternative music throughout Asia: a monthly round-up of the best new releases from across the Pacific, and deep dives into the labels, distros, and DIY scenes that are giving birth to this explosion.
Hiperson – Chengdu, China
ffo: Yo La Tengo, Deerhoof, PK14
Hiperson is a band that I’ve been following since the beginning of FnInt. Their 2015 debut 我不要别的历史 (No Need For Another History) veered between nervy, stabby post punk descended from Gang of Four and jazzier, more atmospheric cuts. The record is full of deep, serpentine groves, and a dramatic vocal delivery that reminded me of The Woods-era Sleater Kinney. But Four Seasons, their 2019 EP, threw me. “Strawberries,” the first song, is driven by synths and drum machines that hinted at dance punk, but the rest of the EP felt drifty: unfocused pop with brief spoken word sections tucked in between verses. In short, I stupidly chalked it up to being Not My Bag and continued my Bandcamp scroll.
Bildungsroman is every bit as unexpected and unpredictable as Four Seasons, but it’s clear from the jump that I misunderstood everything that was happening on that EP when I first heard it. The band was far from losing focus. They were loosening the rigidity of the post punk structures to leave the central melody soft and mutable, to leave themselves free to create something much more cinematic and adventurous.
The band formed in 2015 after meeting at school in Xindu despite the fact that none of them had ever been in a band before. “Spring Breeze” details the painful dissolution of a relationship that sets the stage for the album’s journey of grief and self-discovery. In an interview with Kiwese, singer Sijiang Chen stated, “When we decided to record, we started to see the songs as having something coherent…we had a lot of discussion about the character moving from one emotional state to another, experiencing the details of her life as she changed to a new one — even now we are still trying to picture the shape.” Bildungsroman is filled with murky commentary on consumerism and oblique political allusions: the album’s promotional art depicts all band members in dark-grey zhongshan suits, an artifact of the Mao administration. The band only discusses this imagery in loose, conceptual terms, but these loaded signifiers are uncharacisterically bold for a band in China. Chen refers to the band as “story starters,”: “we want to start the story, and let people write the rest themselves.”
The songs have expanded in scope, three of them breaking 7 minutes. Verse-chorus-verse structures have largely been abandoned in favor of a series of progressive movements, lyrical and sonic motifs continually reemerging in new voicings. The guitars are employed more sparingly, but with no less of their searing authority. See: the triumphant riffing over the last two minutes of “I Am in a Period of Desperation.” Even the shorter songs like this one have a sweeping post rock quality, rising and falling in a graceful build-and-release. The spoken word has become an essential part of the music, the instruments often falling away completely as Chen recites her lyrics.
The center of every song is Chen’s incredible, commanding voice that swings from an ethereal croon to a fierce wail. She sings in Mandarin, but the lyrics on the album’s Bandcamp page are helpfully translated into English. The translation is excellent, vivid and poetic meditations on identity and existence shot through with bursts of surreal imagery. In “Daily March,” Chen intones in Mandarin: “It cannot be grasped, in the wind / It will not be grasped, the style of the modern city / Layers and layers of roads and buildings / looking just like rivers and mountains.” “I Am in a Period of Desperation” explores this desperation with in a disarmingly plainspoken manner, describing the feeling as an inexorable gravity that is all the more unshakable for its scrutability: “I can’t convince myself that there is something that is unchanging, reliable and lasts forever / I can’t find it, the sun that I used to imagine /The sun that drives out the night doesn’t appear at night, I know / The sun that drives out the night doesn’t appear at night, I know.”
The less experimental sections of Bildungsroman are a liquid blend of the improvisational, jammy strains of indie rock. “From Birth to the Present” has Deerhoof’s loud, declarative riffs and stilted rhythms, while “Happy Times Always Pass Fast” is reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s warm guitars and intimate grooves on songs like “Shadows.” But these are quick comparisons based more on the interlocking bass and drums and guitar textures that do little to convey the album’s sweeping arc, the emotional heft of the narrative, and the music that feels less like young musicians just a few years removed from college and more like a peerless and important indie rock band cementing their legacy with their opus.
Which I believe they have just done.
iamrain – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
ffo: Explosions in the Sky, the Appleseed Cast, The Gloria Record
iamrain are a band with big ambitions. The Bandcamp page for their debut full-length citra states in no uncertain terms “*BEST WITH HEADPHONES*” They came out the gate with a full merch spread, including the album on tape, CD, and vinyl. Album opener “apati” fades in on wispy synths with a child’s voice murmuring underneath; the song that follows is one long crescendo, a driving sing-along that feels almost more like a closing track. It’s an elegiac rush held together by its momentum. Most of the songs on the album have a similar section: choral droning or light synth pads laid over distant, echoing voices. It’s a serious album. And it would fall apart under its own weight if not for how successfully the band lives up to their own expectations.
iamrain plays post rock-inflected emo very much in the Appleseed Cast or Mineral tradition, but the focus here is less on raucous catharsis than the steady, glistening builds of a band like Explosions in the Sky. Chiming guitars hang in the air and subtle synths ooze out in every direction. The band sings primarily in Malay, and my understanding of their lyrics comes from deeply unreliable Google Translates, but from what I can gather, the album’s themes are well represented in the last two songs, the only songs sung in English. “patience” is a bleary mood piece anchored by various vocal samples clipped from pop culture that fades out on the question “will you wait another day / just to heal the pain away / will you stay another day / just to keep the fear at bay.” However, as if to provide an answer for the album’s existential melancholy, album highlight “ode to youth” opens with defiant optimism: “we will rise / we will love again.”
OTHER NEW AND NOTABLE
Whitenoir – Jakarta, Indonesia
Recovery Needs (8/15/20)
ffo: Title Fight, Citizen, Basement
I’ve written about it before, but Indonesia loves that soft grunge sound, those sloshy mid-tempo grooves driven by heavy rhythm guitars and pinprick lead lines spangled across the songs like glow in the dark stars on a bedroom ceiling. The vocals here are more gentle than their U.S. or U.K. contemporaries, which is a frequent feature of Indonesian bands in this genre. Whitenoir isn’t interested in bellowed aggression, focusing instead on chewy, chugging rhythms and making the prettiest, slowest chorus possible. They brush up against the edge of shoegaze from time to time, but don’t get it twisted: this is a rock band.
thebonkers – Hong Kong
möbius perception (8/1/20)
ffo: LITE, CSTVT, Kinsellacore
thebonkers play instrumental math rock with a strong revival emo influence: you can hear echoes of the midwest sound as filtered through revival bands like CSTVT. However, there’s also plenty the aggressive, brainy math a la the Japanese math rock scene, as well as moments of atmospheric post-rock. The lead guitar lines often function in the same way a vocal melody might, bringing more pop appeal than typical for instrumental emo. According to Riz over at UniteAsia (the knower of all things), the band has been around since 2009, but this is their first recorded EP. You can hear the band’s history together in the intuitive interlocking of all the moving parts, a confident first release.
Pentatonic – Beijing, China
Bye Bye! Post Rock! (8/1/20)
ffo: This Will Destroy You, Caspian, Collapse Under the Empire
Pentatonic has this post rock thing on lock, right down to Goodspeed You!’s punctuation. Their music isn’t nearly as broad in scope: songs hover right around 5 or 6 minutes, instrumental but still playing recognizable verse-chorus-verse song structures. In many ways, it’s prototypical Chinese post rock, more interested in the genre’s textures and melodies than the mathy flavor of Japanese instrumental rock or the endless builds of your film soundtrack post rock (Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You), but they manage to build up an admirable head of steam in relatively abbreviated timeframes.
Interzon – South Korea
ffo: The Hives, The Libertines, The Smiths
I mentioned Interzon briefly in Volume 7, and they’re already back with Appendix, their first full length. It’s a likable slacker take on the bouncy garage rock revival sound that has plenty of love for Morrissey. It’s less polished than their leather jacket-clad inspirations, scrappier—a little extra garage in the rock, if you will. I can’t tell if they’re going to take this sound in a new direction or continue perfecting their impressions, but something in my gut tells me they’re working their way toward something interesting in an all-but-abandoned genre, and I’m paying close attention to see what that is.
Camlann – Jakarta, Indonesia
The Forgotten Lost Fragments (7/20/20)
ffo: Dungeons & Dragons, medieval romance novels, black lipstick
The teens are on some other shit. The Bandcamp description states that The Forgotten Lost Fragments, “is Camlann’s debut album that invites you to see the bittersweet reality of the world we’re living in. A fictional story that tells you about pain, darkness, love, light, and death, all wrapped into a dark and melancholic 10 tracks album that has a strong religious splash in it.” The album, told from the perspective of an unnamed woman, follows aspiring Catholic priest Father Johannes Bianchi through love, heartbreak, illness, and his tragic death.
The band released their first EP in 2019, at which point nobody in the band had even turned 16 yet. The record is awash in murky syths, chorus-drenched guitars, and mournful crooning, all underpinned by an 80s drum machine. It’s incredibly fun, and a remarkable first outing for the young band. The teens are the future, man.
Morningwhim – Japan
Talking to Myself / Smoke from Cigarettes (7/29/20)
ffo: Alvvays, Stars, Belle & Sebastian
Morningwhim’s jangly dreampop hits all the right notes: dual male-female vocals, Stuart Murdoch-style earnest twee (the male vocals bear more than a passing resemblance to the Scot), and the woozy shimmer of the still-cresting Alvvays-wave. Both songs are remarkably well constructed and produced, hitting all the right notes of classic twee with the bright, updated production of contemporary indie pop. It won’t be long before it gets filtered into your Sunny Indie Pop Spotify playlists or whatever, but you should check it out now. This shit deserves to get played while summer’s still here.
Seventeen Years Old And Berlin Wall – Japan
ffo: Broken Little Sister, My Dead Girlfriend, Slowdive
There’s a phenomenon that I find difficult to articulate: in many places in Asia, dreampop and shoegaze are slowly being melted together in one pot, the guitars still fuzzed out but muffled and pushed to the back of the mix, with simple lead lines and burbling synths taking center stage alongside bucolic male-female vocal harmonies. It sounds very little like shoegaze proper, but bands in China and Japan, in particular, view shoegaze as an essential influence that still informs their sound. On Abstract, SYOABW have almost entirely shed their early woozy Kevin Shields-style guitars (where you hold the whammy bar and continuously employ it while strumming). Instead, in keeping with this trend of dreampopping up the ‘gaze, they’ve created something mellow and meditative that still borders on downright dancy. It may be not shoegaze as you define it, but it’s lush and yearning and built on carefully stacked textures and layers of guitar and vocal melody. And to me? That’s ‘gaze, baby.
Prospexx – Singapore
ffo: Depeche Mode, Clan Of Xymox, No Hope for the Kids
A highly dancey darkwave record. All four songs were recorded during the mandatory stay at home order in Singapore (May-June of this year), but if the record was birthed out of boredom, it doesn’t show in the kinetic grooves. It’s goth night at the warehouse rave, it’s throbbing synths and distant, echoing drums, it’s a band that clearly set out to have a good time and exceeded their own goals. But even in an attempt to bring a little life and fun into the endless slog of a global pandemic, Prospexx’s Bandcamp page has a final reminder that Singapore, like many countries, is facing an inescapable reality of political turmoil as the government exerts increasing amounts of authority over its citizens. At the bottom of the album description, the band signs off with two short, emphatic lines: “Fuck the Police. Fuck State violence.”
We here at Friendship International endorse this statement.
Keegan Bradford | @franziamom
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