Local band The Observatory meld gamelan and industrial rock; Mackenzie Scott does family ties; and The Bad Plus meets Joshua Redman

The Observatory’s (from left) Cheryl Ong, Leslie Low, Yuen Chee Wai and Vivian Wang make their foray into Balinese music with Continuum.
The Observatory’s (from left) Cheryl Ong, Leslie Low, Yuen Chee Wai and Vivian Wang make their foray into Balinese music with Continuum.PHOTO: PHILIPP ALDRUP

Singer-songwriter Leslie Low is back with two releases that are musically cutting-edge

When it comes to experimental music, you can count on singer- songwriter Leslie Low and his compatriots to push the boundaries further than many other artists in the home-grown music scene.

Low has certainly been busy this year. A couple of months after handling guitar and vocal duties on Hanging Up The Moon's excellent third album, Immaterial, he is back with two new releases - The Observatory's seventh album Continuum and Pan Gu's The People Are Panthers, a live recording released on cassette.

Continuum is The Observatory's foray into traditional Balinese music, inspired by acclaimed Indonesian gamelan musician Dewa Alit, while Pan Gu is Low's collaboration with Norwegian noisenik Lasse Marhaug.

Remarkably, Low's band came up with their own six-tone scale on the five tracks (six if you include the album closer, a remix track by Marhaug) in Continuum, which has been four years in the making. Low plays various instruments, including the gamelan ones' and sings on the lone track with vocals, Part 5 (Mankind); Vivian Wang plays the synthesizer and sings; Dharma features on guitars and bass; and Bani Haykal plays the percussive reyong, the cymbal-like cengceng, as well as guitars.

    The Observatory
    4/5 stars

It is a testament to the quartet's ingenuity that they produce a sonically stellar mix from the combination of gamelan instruments such as jegogan and pemade with staple rock set-ups such as electric guitars and drums.


    Pan Gu
    3.5/5 stars

Tracks 1 and 3 begin with the percussive tones of the bronzed Indonesian gongs before raw, layered and industrial-like drum beats come crashing in like a juggernaut. Dark and brooding distorted guitar lines loom ominously.


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Eerie and spectral voices weave in and out of Tracks 2 and 4, which also feature seemingly disparate influences ranging from sombre electronica to African rhythms in the heady mix.

Low's gothic baritone hovers over Track 5 as he intones, "You are mankind... lie here, Safe in our shelter, Safe from the bombs."

He returns to wordless music for the two tracks on The People Are Panthers, each clocking 15 minutes and taking up a side on the cassette.

The music is a lot more sparse, recorded by just Low and Marhaug at their gigs in Yangon and Bangkok, two stops on their South-east Asian tour in 2013.

The interplay between the pair is meditative, as Low's guitar and Marhaug's electronic wizardry coalesce in a trance-inducing dirge. The feedback dips, soars and creates wind-like howls in a post- apocalyptic soundscape.

Like Continuum, the mood is tenebrous but at the same time, musically cutting-edge and far-out.

Haunted by family ties

    SPRINTER/ Torres
    Partisan Records
    4/5 stars

Familial ties haunt the riveting second album of Mackenzie Scott, who goes by the name of Torres.

As an adopted child whose own mother was also adopted, the Nashville-raised New Yorker knows first-hand the strange, complicated, primordial ways these ties can be.

On Sprinter, she gives the oft-maligned term "confessional" a good name. Standing naked on her own terms, she lays out her innards for all to see, but she's not asking for sympathy.

"Whether it be abandonment, or fear of rejection, or perhaps an inability to connect with people, it comes down to that fear of isolation, of not being good enough," said Scott in an interview. "Those are themes that have cropped up in my personal life, in my writing."

Only 24, Scott was raised Baptist in the American South and sang church hymns before moving to Nashville and then to Brooklyn.

Hers is itinerant music combining the sacred and sacrosanct, without paying lip service to either. Questioning precepts, she sings from the guts and yet teeters on edge even when it is tempting to leap over the cliff.

She reminds me of two strong American female rockers, Brooklyn's Sharon Van Etten and Atlanta's Shannon Wright - the trio share an instinct in knowing when to go for the jugular and when to turn one's back, yet it sounds surprisingly restrained too, even when the house is burning down. Their voices don't always aim for pretty - they rasp, scratch, raise goosebumps.

Scott's album doesn't feel tethered to time or trend. It could have been recorded in the 1990s, what with the nasty, grungy guitars and ferocious snarls that shock you one-third into the opening track Strange Hellos.

As it happens, the album was co-produced by Rob Ellis, PJ Harvey's producer and percussionist, and recorded in Dorset, England, as well as in the Bristol studio of Portishead's Adrian Utley.

They have given the album brittle power and brilliant clarity. Scott, likewise, rises to the challenge, singing with brittle intensity, but never solipsistically. Her voice is an instrument in search of hearth, wandering and wondering.

She adopts a rasp in the spry guitar-rocker New Skin, ceaselessly moulting, and is eerily double- tracked in the spooky, gloomy dirge Son, You Are No Island, where she references John Donne's 1624 poem Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. She sings with sprightly ambivalence in Cowboy Guilt, a jaunty look at her childhood and faith.

The emotional fulcrum is the stunning eight-minute closing track The Exchange where she reimagines the story of her adoptive mother. The words sting.

Close-miked, she unfurls over sparsely strummed guitar and birds chirping innocently: "I'm afraid to see my heroes age/I am afraid of distintegration/If you're not here, I cannot be here for you," she quivers, breathing perceptible.

"But when you go, will I go too?/When you go, I am going too," she delivers a contrarian couplet, pulled this way and that in an eternal tug of war.

This jazz needs attention

  • JAZZ
    Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus Nonesuch
    3.5/5 stars

Your appreciation of this album will depend very much on your ability to count like mad while figuring out tempo, chord and rhythm changes.

The Bad Plus have established their reputation as an adventuresome trio under the leadership of pianist/composer Ethan Iverson, who has made a name from his bold experimentation.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman, regarded as one of the best improvisatory musicians in the jazz world, joined the trio for a series of acclaimed gigs at New York's renowned Blue Note club in 2011, and this album is the result.

Iverson has long been an eclectic magpie of a musician (he remade Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring for his trio last year in an astounding album that was also reviewed in this paper). Here, he and fellow Bad Plus members bassist Reid Anderson and dummer Dave King embark on a series of original compositions that draw on a range of influences.

The pulsating beat of rock drumming drives tracks such as Dirty Blonde and Friend Or Foe. On Iverson's composition County Seat, you can hear the rustic vernacular traces of American composer Aaron Copland, while the frantic dissonance of Faith Through Error is all contemporary avant-garde.

While there is a lot of serious, intent music-making going on, it does not always make for easy or pretty listening.

Some of the improvisational tracks go on for quite a bit, with Silence Is The Question clocking in at 13 minutes 31 seconds.

Forget about putting this on after a long day at work. It demands full intellectual and musical attention.

Not my cup of tea, but for the jazz fan who is into avant-garde atonality, this is manna.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Gamelan rocks Haunted by family ties This jazz needs attention'. Print Edition | Subscribe