Art-rock band The Observatory’s new album inspired by haze and SG50

The Observatory, comprising (from left) Vivian Wang, Yuen Chee Wai, Cheryl Ong and Leslie Low, will launch their new album at The Substation this weekend.
The Observatory, comprising (from left) Vivian Wang, Yuen Chee Wai, Cheryl Ong and Leslie Low, will launch their new album at The Substation this weekend.PHOTO: PHILIPP ALDRUP

Two events that made headlines last year feature in home-grown experimental rock band The Observatory's latest album

Fed up with the incessant toxic air brought about by regional ecological destruction and overwhelmed by the SG50 celebrations last year, home-grown experimental rock band The Observatory dealt with both issues the only way they knew how - by creating new music.

The resulting songs ended up on their latest and eighth album, August Is The Cruellest, which will be launched with gigs on Friday and Saturday at The Substation.

Keyboardist and synth player Vivian Wang says: "As a group and as individuals, we felt the furore that was SG50 wasn't too different from the intense and long bout of haze we all had to endure."

The songs question the true meaning of happiness and wealth, she adds.

"If we fail to realise the impact of our actions and how this serious lack of pause in this incessant race for progress and domination affects society at large, then we deserve to be no more than a nation of people who can understand life only in terms of GDP (gross domestic product) and what can or can't be monetised."

It is the band's first album written with their current line-up, which also comprise guitarist and singer Leslie Low, drummer and percussionist Cheryl Ong and guitarist and electronic effects musician Yuen Chee Wai.

  • BOOK IT / AUGUST IS THE CRUELLEST - ALBUM LAUNCH

  • WHERE: 45 Armenian Street, The Substation Theatre

    WHEN: Friday and Saturday, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $15 for concession tickets; $20 from cruelaugust.peatix.com; $25 at the door

Former members such as guitarist Dharma and drummer and percussionist Bani Haykal left the band in the past few years.

The band wrote and recorded the songs in Bergen, Norway, in August last year. They had previously toured there and it was also where they recorded past albums such as Dark Folke (2009).

Being away helped them focus on working on their latest batch of songs.

Wang says: "We wrote furiously and passionately. We got into a momentum, dragged one another along, argued, defended, gave support and just put ourselves through it without flinching."

The title track was also written for a Singapore International Festival of Arts production last year, The Cemetery, by theatre company Drama Box. It was inspired by British-American poet T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

Besides Eliot, Low also drew inspiration from the works of Chinese writer and musician Yan Jun.

Of the album, he says: "It's quite raw and heavy, the closest we've come to writing something so quick. Its immediacy meant that there wasn't a lot of time to deliberate."

The past few months have been busy for them. Besides touring Japan in November, they also did a one-off performance of their seventh album, Continuum, at arts event Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, last month.

To recreate live the album's esoteric, gamelan-inspired music, the band had to fly 300kg of the percussive instruments to the Japanese city and back.

Says Ong: "It was quite a task, logistically speaking. We wanted to replicate the album launch concert at The Substation.

"The gamelan set used for Continuum was of a specific tuning, so it was essential for the show that we brought our own as we couldn't borrow it from anywhere else."

Another Japan tour is on the cards and, possibly, Australia soon.

Yuen adds that the band are keen on travelling more and "exploring new ground".

"Getting a residency overseas is also part of our plan, to allow us to further develop our work, write new material and tour more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Potent mix of SG50 and the haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe