United by one love

Deon Toh's sophomore album Oceans was inspired by his travels to countries such as Iceland and Holland.
Deon Toh's sophomore album Oceans was inspired by his travels to countries such as Iceland and Holland.PHOTO: DEON

Two home-grown singer-songwriters come from different generations and genres but both enjoy composing concept albums

While many in the home-grown music scene seem content to release singles or EPs, here are two singer-songwriters - Singapore's most prolific veteran indie musician and a fledgling act - who are committed to long-form releases. And while there are generational and genre gaps between Kelvin Tan, who turns 51 this year, and Deon, 28, there is another bond that they share as artists - the fortitude to compose concept albums.

More than just a random compilation of songs, Deon's sophomore album Oceans and Tan's triptych are collections of tunes unified by themes both musically and lyrically.

The former, whose full name is Deon Toh, ruminates on the changing seasons and the cyclical nature of life, inspired by his travels to Iceland, Holland, Britain and Canada, countries where most of the album was composed and conceptualised.

Oceans is a remarkable step up from his middling, pop-rock debut Antiphobic, released last year. This time, Toh has expanded his musical palette to incorporate elements of electronica, in the vein of Icelandic musician Asgeir, post-rock-style mood build-ups and baroque, piano-driven pieces.


    4/5 stars

On Summer, the season is spent "running, From fears we left behind, Though it never rained in open fields, We feared cold all the time". As it gives way to Fall, a duet between Toh and album co-producer, singer and musician Mindy Kon, the pair intones: "There are signs, that I'm slipping out of control, And it's weird, cause I thought that I could hold my own."





    Kelvin Tan
    4/5 stars

By Winter, he bemoans: "Loosen your hopes, drown out that glow, Cause there's nothing that gets me anymore." Spring is a cry for help ("Too much emotion, I've got too much to lose, Won't you spring me out of here").

While the progression might seem bleak, the album closes with Cycles, a satisfying bookend to opening song Circles.

Contemplating the periodic and healing nature of life, he sings: "We love, we miss, We break, and start again, It's cast in stone."

While Toh's repertoire is marked by a structured approach to songcraft, Tan, who also plays the guitar with indie elders The Oddfellows, is at the other end of the spectrum.

As evidenced by his vast discography, which spans more than 130 albums, Tan is a musically free-spirited soul with a penchant for abstract, improvisational gems.

While his past annual releases might comprise 10 albums or more, he keeps it relatively concise this time, with just three albums.

The flagship work is The Prophet Transcends; An Exploratory Eulogy For MM Lee, which, like its title suggests, is a collection of avant-garde instrumental odes to Singapore's late founding prime minister. Tan plays electric guitars, as well as twiddles the knobs on various effects pedals, coaxing shrill wails, ambient soundscapes and grainy blowouts. His collaborator Tan Boon Gee plays all manner of rhythms and tempos on drums.

Far Into The Grammatologies is a lot more avant-garde, with seemingly random guitar and bass noodlings and odd, percussive patterns on the drum kit.

While the album contains only five tunes, the scale is ambitious and tracks such as Hello 21st Sensetory! stretch on for more than 18 minutes.

The odd one out among the three are Songs For An Unfair World, a relatively conventional batch of tunes with singing and regular song structures.

Still, all the music is, again, improvisational while Tan spouts stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Taking inspiration from subjects ranging from his girlfriend (If It Wasn't for Her... (for Jacq) ) and the complexities of modern life (An Unfair World (for Krishnan)), the album is a warts-and-all bunch of tracks.

It is not an easy listen, he goes off-key and hits bum notes, but it is Tan doing what he does best, producing raw reflections on everyday existence through song.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'United by one love'. Print Edition | Subscribe