Sound Bites

Review: New brigade of musicians paving way for emotive, cross-genre experience

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 5, 2013  

Hooks are a much-feared word: Bubblegum pop listeners swear by them, while musicians often self-flagellate in their ceaseless pursuit of them.

Popular music - the juggernaut of singing along in unison - depends on them. One must remember a hook then decide whether one likes it, or not.

A singer's voice, thus, works as an anchor or a weathervane, steering the listener along to an expected denouement.

But what if the human voice is absent, or at least, indistinct? That can be tricky. Wordlessness, or the obfuscation of literal meanings, means the listener is set adrift. You have no choice but to immerse yourself in the music.

This week's musicians represent a new vanguard who have audaciously opened the realm of interpretation, using words sparingly or not at all.

Their music, eliding boundaries between tradition and modern, experimentation and rigour, is not pivoted on easy hooks and words you can hum along to.

In the past couple of years, I have highlighted Icelandic pianist Olafur Arnalds, English multi-instrumentalist Bill Ryder- Jones and Manhattan composer Nico Muhly.

Other estimable names include Texan post-rockers Explosions In The Sky as well as Scottish bands Boards Of Canada and Mogwai, whose recent albums resemble mini symphonies.

The following acts have similarly elevated the art of wordlessness or near- wordlessness to a rarefied level.



Nils Frahm

Erased Tapes

**** 1/2

Who: Hamburg-born Berliner Nils Frahm, 31, is a leading light among modern classical composers who revel in electronica. He has studied under a student of Tchaikovsky, worked with Iceland's Arnalds and, most recently, produced Hero Brother, an album by Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld.

What his album sounds like: Your heartbeat. Spaces is a field recording of new compositions as well as tracks from previous albums, such as 2011's stunning Felt.

The songs were committed to cassette tapes or reel-to-reel recorders, among other techniques, in various venues over the last two years.

He melds piano, synthesizer and found sounds into an arresting roller-coaster.

Says, an eight-minute masterpiece, starts off as a delicate synth meditation but blooms into an awe-inducing multi- instrumental epic that washes over you.

His virtuosic performance of Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone is intriguingly open - you are strung along, piqued, a willing victim.

A serious artist who doesn't take himself too seriously, he even uses toilet brushes to create percussive effects on his piano strings to staggeringly emotional effect.

In short: A John Cage-Philip Glass love child with the heart and soul of Radiohead.



The Range

Donky Pitch


Who: James Hinton aka The Range is a 25-year-old producer from Providence, Rhode Island, who has released his major-label debut for the Brighton, England label, Donky Pitch.

He released his first album, The Big Dip, in 2011, with help from Brown University schoolmate and New York electronic whiz Nicolas Jaar.

What his album sounds like: Chilled with a dangerous undertow. Nonfiction marries agile percussion beats and R&B cut-ups to create a cinematic portrait of anonymous lives.

He builds a lattice of hi-hat syncopations around ramblings by dudes apparently found on YouTube.

FM Myth operates on a re-looped sci-fi siren that wraps around a mutated manly lament as the beats go 1990s drum 'n' bass.

Sad Song, similarly, isn't sentimental at all - a slick sheen underlies its flurry of drums and swell of bass.

In short: A cut-and-paste maestro who brings the warmth of the bedroom to the club.




Other People/Matador

**** 1/2

Who: Darkside comprise Chilean-American electronic genius Nicolas Jaar, 23, who released his debut Space Is Only Noise to critical acclaim; and his Brown University pal Dave Harrington, who plays in free jazz combos. In June this year, they rewired Daft Punk's newest album Random Access Memories in its entirety for a project called Random Access Memories Memories under the pseudonym Daftside, turning the original into a moody, industrial beast.

What their album sounds like: Psychic feels amazingly tactile. You could almost reach out to feel it. The songs are made for headphones. They course through genres like R&B, rock and pop like the aftermath of a nuclear storm. Nothing is spared. You recall familiar snippets of soul in the exquisite Heart, with Jaar's airless falsetto strutting its own private dance. Blues pops its face in Paper Trails, a cool boogie-woogie across a Lynchian cabaret. You dance. You stop. You look over your shoulder. And then dance again.

In short: They are suspense thrillers who make old-school celluloid - in 3-D.




Kitchen. Label


Who: Singapore sound artist and composer Darren Ng aka sonicbrat is trained in classical piano and adept in melding DIY electronics and organic instrumentation. He is signed to the laudable boutique label Kitchen.

What his album sounds like: A gradual immersion in the hours of the day. No words are spoken and they are not needed. Ng weaves sounds as an intimation of a person's sojourn through nocturne and daytime. The pace is Ozu-esque. Geometry resonates with a distant chime and keys are gently caressed. Adjacent Room plays like you've been eavesdropping on a neighbour's plangent piano recital. Being Air is infused with clutches of static amid a sprinkling of ivories.

In short: A musician who wants to still time and open spaces for connection.

All albums are available on iTunes. Go to for more details on sonicbrat.

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