The voiceless herd: Post-rock culture in KL
Adrian Yap CK sits down with some instrumental bands to find out why they’ve decided to go wordless
It’s just where the music took us,’ says Phang Kuan Hoong, keyboardist/ sampler for KL-based post-rock instrumental band Citizens of Ice Cream when asked why his band started down the instrumental path. ‘We didn’t start playing in a band or developing our music with a specific or practical reason in mind’.
Phang and his band are part of a movement that’s been taking the indie music by force for the best part of the last decade now. The term ‘post-rock’ is a term that’s believed have been coined by music critic Simon Reynolds in the mid-’90s to describe this ‘new sound’ that was emerging from the musical trenches at the time. He defines it as ‘using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords’.
The genre was largely conceptualised by American band Slint in the late ’80s but it wasn’t until around 1997 when Scottish band Mogwai released its debut opus ‘Mogwai Young Team’ that the scene began to find a larger audience. The racket created by the Glasgow band was distinct, saccharine guitar picking being layered on with every bar until it exploded into a cacophonous concoction of crashing cymbals and thick wall-of-white-noise guitars. Until that point rock musicians’ idea of instrumental music was noodling by technical guitar shredders. The sound made then seems to share more in common with dramatic film scores than it did with traditional rock music. Since then, bands have been picking off that blueprint, taking it down either a more electronic-orientated path (The Album Leaf) or cranking up the noise factor to neo-metal proportions (65daysofstatic). Phang’s band is no different – ‘It’s just about bringing out each of our sounds and letting the music take you where it takes you’.
Is it an easy way out then? There was a time when to start a rock band was to content with the idea that someone had to be the focal point of attention, the frontman/singer. With the onset of this genre, that responsibility seems to be taken squarely out of the hands of bands looking to hit some showtime pay dirt but Phang is adamant that this is not the case at all. ‘It’s a common misconception that bands should operate like a business or image management, like going instrumental is kind of like how a business cuts corners and uses cheaper materials to achieve its goals,’ he states. ‘The truth is, musicians who come together to play usually start off with very simple reasons and that’s what keeps you at it – because it’s fun.’
But at the same time, Phang is candid about the band’s origins as well, namely how they evolved gradually from a ‘singing band’ Meng Shat, into what they are today, as opposed to some other bands that never had that evolutionary step. ‘The music we were doing developed to a point where the vocals could no longer make our music express itself fully, so we tried going instrumental and it turned out to be a lot more real and honest for us than trying to forcefully fit in vocals,’ he shares frankly. ‘It wasn’t really so much as a conscious decision, more like a point of realisation and finding what our music is actually about.’
Unlike Citizens, relatively new KL-based band The Metaphor’s entry into the instrumental realm seems more a byproduct of logistics rather than inspiration. But guitarist Tomas insists that it’s actually more of a challenge to make instrumental music interesting. ‘We find it rather challenging to make each piece unique in its own way, how we’re having to fill in more melodies and hooks to cover the lack of vocals,’ he shares before adding, ‘Yes, a lot of people can sing. But to have the sort of voice we were hoping for was becoming quite out of reach. Can’t say we didn’t try.’
But is it really sustainable, seeing as the lyrical element, an important point of engagement on most important pieces of modern music, is nonexistent in instrumental post-rock bands? Not to mention in a live setting, the option to sing along to a song would not be possible, unless you plan to hum along to a guitar line which would just be silly. In a sense, wouldn’t these instrumental bands be battling somewhat to hold audience’s attention? ‘Instrumental music is sustainable without a doubt. It is and it has always been a medium to convey untold stories,’ adds Tomas, whose band recently released an EP titled ‘Preface’. ‘We’re not sure about the struggle for new ideas but to us, every music piece is an art. Everything composed must flow with how we feel.’
But Phang seems to take a slightly more ‘realistic’ approach to the subject, realising that while a lot of the value attached to instrumental post-rock may be self-experiential, there are some merits in putting a little extra effort into helping the audience along their way. ‘The audience finds their own way to enjoy the music. We just play it. When it’s out there, we don’t own it, the listener does. If he or she finds something interesting or worthwhile it is entirely up to the them,’ he shares before adding pragmatically, ‘We’re also thinking about co-operating with digital visual artists for our upcoming live performances.’
But yet, as stubbornly unchanging as both individuals and their bands are, it is ironic that both bands in question have evolved somewhat from the original blueprint created by Mogwai in the ’90s. Each band has added their own individual touch to set their identity apart from the chasing pack, namely Citizens of Ice Cream’s use of horns to counter balance the rock instrumentations, and The Metaphor’s employment of the piano as the main focal point of its sonic assault. Neither are elements you would find readily on a Mogwai record. But evolution is unavoidable perhaps, because even pioneer bands such as Mogwai have started moving away from its purely instrumental/morose sound, incorporating elements of pop and even vocals in recent years. Tomas certainly feels this is the case for his band when asked if he would want to move away from a purely instrumental concept: ‘Yeah, definitely. It all depends on how our music progresses. We do plan to include vocals, maybe even poetry readings or live acting if the opportunities present itself.’