Music

Piling up the (Philippine) Indie Landfill?

image credit: Brtipop.com.au

If Ian Urrutia of the blog site Vandals on the Wall is to be believed, 2012 marked the year in which aspiring tech savvy Filipino musicians discovered and uploaded their music on to Bandcamp. He provides compelling evidence for this by selecting from among them the top ten EPs and top sixty tracks for the year.

Considering the impressive collection assembled, a curious onlooker might conclude that the local independent music scene is vibrant and bursting at the seams. It is not just the volume but the breadth that strikes one when confronted with this cacophony of musical talent. And Ian does a fine job of establishing his hold on the jargon needed to review such work.

There is literally something for everyone’s musical palette and tastes. As the website boasts, whether it’s mainstream or independent, we surely got your music covered. Choice now seems to be endless, when it was not too long ago, that you could count with your fingers the number of acts that were genuinely into this type of music. The scene has indeed come a long way. The problem though is with this much on offer; a listener could get lazy, which perhaps creates a role for curators like Ian. The quality of their work could either help or hinder the cause.

If, as Simon Reynolds in the British daily newspaper The Guardian said, the start of the noughties was a time when indie was regarded as “the rubbish dump of contemporary music”, then could the start of this decade (the teenies?) be one in which the Philippines starts to produce its own version of “indie landfill” with the proliferation of heaps of local acts? As Reynolds noted

Once upon a time, long long ago, the shitness of indie actually had a point. Back in the 1980s – the days of Bogshed and Beat Happening, the Membranes and June Brides – indie was about defiant amateurishness and naivety. Its defects – shaky rhythm sections, weak voices, clumsy playing – were a refusal of the perfectionism and professionalism of 80s rock and pop. The awkwardness and abrasiveness reaffirmed the “anyone can do it” principle that many at that time saw as the crucial element of punk ideology. Indie’s flailing substandardness (as measured in conventional terms) could thus be felt by its fans as liberating and confrontational.

By the late 1990s and on into the noughties, though, indie wasn’t crappy for a purpose. In fact, it wasn’t especially inept or ramshackle anymore, so much as drearily adequate. Instrumentally, there was just a sustained absence of flair in the playing. This guitar-based music didn’t rock, but equally the songcraft wasn’t sufficiently strong, or forcefully sung enough, for it to make the grade as proper pop music. What was it for then? A vague aura of superiority to the commercial mainstream clung around it still, but really only as a hangover from the past: a set of received assumptions adopted by each new generation of the indie demographic, which kept on reconstituting itself in the same way that every year a fresh crop of first years arrive at uni. That inherited sense of undefined alternativeness crumbled on close scrutiny, since the music was not innovative by any stretch, and only rarely was it artistically adventurous in terms of its lyrical content, or expressive of bohemian values. A lot of indie wasn’t even released via independent labels. [emphasis mine]

He concluded by saying that by the end of the decade, the indie landfill had cleared somewhat in that

Looking back over the noughties, then, you’d have to say that indie produced a good proportion of the decade’s least impressive music. Yet indie also produced some of the most. Even on its traditional terrain – the songful guitar band with “interesting” lyrics, “attitude” and a decent shot at an NME front cover – there was a series of indie heavyweights, starting with the Strokes and the Libertines, who jolted the scene out of the dismal post-Britpop slough of the late 90s. And once you strayed beyond that narrow strip of indie-as-commonly-understood, there was a steadily accumulating ferment of activity that shredded the indie stereotype to the point where, by the decade’s end, the word was virtually meaningless. [emphasis mine]

Could local indie bands be taking the Filipino penchant for imitation to a whole new level? If in the 1980s, Filipino bands proved their musical worth by sounding what in the vernacular was termed placado or like an exact replica of the song they were covering, then at present, are musicians trying to earn their chops by hopping on to the indie bandwagon, and composing music that resembles what they have come across on Pitchfork, Stereogum or the like?

Contacted for comment, Toti Dalmacion of Terno Recordings who could be credited with starting the whole local indie scene from the early-90s with his radio show, Groove Nation Sessions through to the noughties with the development of such acts as Up Dharma DownEncounters with a YetiSleepwalk Circus and The Charmes under his label, says that the current state of play is good and usually bad at the same time. The man, who has seen everything before and worries that the scene he has helped nurture could become discredited, says the terrain could very easily be characterised as

a landfill when people accept everything “indie” as good and amazing… You have to remember “indie” here can mean Cynthia Alexander to Up Dharma Down and most of the time it’s the “process” and not the “sound”. While post-punk, post-rock and other age old terms are bandied about by these young-uns who want to show that they’re eclectic, I question the liking to just about anything as long as there’s some edge to it… It is inevitable though because of too many bands sprouting left and right due to technology and the web so you just need to sift through the landfill. [emphasis mine]

It’s a word of caution worth heeding. The scene could very easily resemble a pseudo-modernist rendition of post-modern pastiche. Luminaries like Toti can’t blame these indie acts though. Not really. As comedian Fred Armisen, whose impression of Ryan Schreiber the founder of Pitchfork in the show Portlandia was the topic of conversation, said to a reporter from that outfit, at least they were trying. But could there be such a thing as trying too hard?

Reprinted with permission from The Scenester. Read the rest of the article here.

Building Capacities with Armi Millare of Up Dharma Down

Reposted with permission from our friends at The Scenester an online fanzine that has been covering the local music scene since the mid-90s.

Image courtesy of Chico Limjap at Chicolimjap.com

ca·pac·i·ty /kəˈpasitē/ n. pl. ca·pac·i·ties

1. The ability to receive, hold, or absorb. 2. The maximum amount that can be contained. 3. a. Ability to perform or produce; capability. b. The maximum or optimum amount that can be produced. 4. The power to learn or retain knowledge; mental ability. 5. Innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment; faculty. 6. The quality of being suitable for or receptive to specified treatment. 7. The position in which one functions; role.

To these definitions, we can now add: title of the soon to be released and much anticipated third album of Up Dharma Down under Terno Recordings.

The Scenester’s chief contributor, Kristo Babbler recently “sat down” with Armi Millare, keyboards and lead vocals for Up Dharma Down to take stock of the band’s evolution to date, their creative process in the lead up to their third outing, and Armi’s personal journey all throughout. A rather revealing exchange ensued.

Kristo Babbler (KB): Judging from Turn it Well (see video below), Capacities sounds like a very different album from Bipolar or Fragmented. I sense a more upbeat feeling from it, more life affirming, is that true of the rest of the album? And if so, was that by design, or did it just evolve that way over a period of time?

Armi Millare (AM): It’s part of our evolution as music-makers. I think we’ve consciously tried to re-interpret some things in a different way. Not because the theme is wrist-cuttingly sad, doesn’t mean it can’t be upbeat. There are ways around expression that we can toy with. I used to have the impression that anger was expressed with a lot of high register singing, but there is pent up anger, there are passive aggressive episodes and there are hopeful moments that don’t necessarily have to reflect into a fast beat.

KB: It’s been four years since you released Bipolar. Many of your followers are actually second and even third generation ones. Are you concerned that with this third album, your followers might not “get it”? Or are you fairly confident having road-tested the first track?

AM: We also wanted to explore new heights, always trying to do something new. We perform these songs at least three times a week and on a technical aspect, and so we want to keep ourselves inspired by creating new things (that) we haven’t done before. I don’t think that’s a crime. This is all we’ve got, so (we) might as well give it our best shot; might as well enjoy it. You can’t please everyone. And that’s been our mantra all these years. I think the reason why we stuck together was mainly because of that.

I realize that most people forget that even if we have not released a record in 4 years, we were relentlessly gigging since 2004 and a little before that. We were living the life of a performing band that hardly took any breaks because that’s how we want to spell out our commitment. In those 4 years before the actual CD was pressed, we have released tracks that kept us going. Most of them are only being heard now by a wider audience. Capacities has become a compilation of those 4 years and I would like to make sure that those singles do not go to waste when the album had always been on our minds soon after Bipolar was released.

We truly appreciate our listeners and we show that by interacting with them a lot. We feel grateful for their support, but I think the reason why they like the music is exactly because we don’t try too hard to please them. We’re pleased with our work, we’re mighty proud of it, because we wrote them from experience and there’s not one bit of a half-truth in this record. I bet all my chips on this one. Because in the next life, I’m going to be an anthropologist!

KB: There was a rumoured collaboration with Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile, the Scottish band from Glasgow that UDD has been compared to. Did that actually materialise?

Read the rest of the interview here.

‘Sup? Major! Major!

Yet another failed quest for a Ms Universe title elicits a few reflections on the supposed shallowness of Filipino mores and culture.

Twice the favorite and twice spurned: in the dating world, such a disappointing result as that suffered by the Philippines’ past two contestants in successive rounds of the Ms Universe pageant would elicit some deep questioning of the self. “What’s wrong with me?” would be the burning question. And it is.

For the second year in a row, many commentators believe that the Philippine contestant missed out on being crowned Ms Universe due to less than satisfactory answers in the Q&A round. The first attempt went under when Venus Raj answered the question, “what is one big mistake you have made in your life?” with something like there had been no “major, major” stuff ups in her life so far (questioning the premise that she would even commit one) thanks to her parents’ influence and social upbringing.

That answer led many to surmise that the Q&A segment was not the Philippines’ strong suit. This year that point was made all the more clear by the simple fact that our contestant, Shamcey Supsup, having graduated at the top of her class at a leading university, should have had all the mental faculties to grapple with the question posed to her, and yet she still failed to impress.

For the benefit of those who haven’t followed events so far, the question was, “would you change your religious beliefs to marry the person you loved?” And the answer given by Ms Supsup was, “If I had to change my religious beliefs, I would not marry the person that I love. Because the first person that I love is God, who created me, and I have my faith and principles, and this is what makes me who I am. If that person loves me, he should love my God, too.

Now as one column opined, Supsup was “robbed” of the crown for providing a “Christian” answer. Certainly, if that were the case, then most Filipinos would agree with the premise that the question was loaded and that the judges were biased. But was that really the case?

The question posed to Ms Supsup did not make religious conversion a requirement for matrimony. It wasn’t prefaced with, “If you had to change your religious views…” as Shamcey’s answer was. It left room for her to still maintain her religious beliefs while entering an interfaith marriage. The question was about whether she would (voluntarily, if at all) change her religious affiliation to please her spouse and presumably fit in within his religious community.

The answer given by Shamcey was not necessarily of the wrong kind (“No, I will not change my views”), but rather it was simply couched in the wrong terms. It probably should have been along the lines of her maintaining independence (which was what the judges were most likely looking for) while being married (“I cherish my views and expect my future spouse to respect them, just as I would his.”).

American Bias

We have to acknowledge here that a certain amount of cultural bias was embedded in the question. For one, in America (where the Ms Universe franchise is based), the predominance of Protestantism has been eroded to a bare majority (of 51% of Americans as revealed by a Pew Survey back in 2008). Protestants are splintered into many denominations broadly characterised as Evangelical (26.3%), Mainline Protestant (18.1%) and historically black churches (6.9%). The more unified Catholics comprise the next biggest group (23.9%).

Given the fragmentation of denominations in the US (somewhat like a marketplace of religious ideas), it is no wonder that many do change their religious affiliation whether for marital or other reasons as 44% of adults surveyed have done at one point in their lives. The largest rising group is of those unaffiliated with any formal religion (16.1%), a large chunk of which (nearly half) still maintains a certain kind of spiritual belief or practice (freedom of religion is alive and well in America).

Rather than resisting the need to change her religious views out of a sense of independence, Ms Supsup’s reply seemed to imply a certain intolerance towards those who didn’t share in, and an expectation that they conform to, her beliefs. A majority of Americans by contrast (the same Pew Survey showed) agreed with the following statements that “many religions can lead to eternal life” (70%) and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion” (68%).

Even among ‘born again’ Evangelicals, those who have held a very literal fundamentalist view of the Bible, the affirmative responses were 66% and 64% respectively. Among Catholics it was 79% and 77%. On the one hand, the monotheistic religions to which most Americans subscribe teach that there is but one absolute deity and consequently one absolute truth. On the other hand, a sizable majority of their adherents are willing to entertain a more pluralist and tolerant world view. What could have caused them to hold somewhat inconsistent views (a kind of Relative Absolutism as framed by one author)?

One visiting scholar from the US who came to Australia (and whose radio interview I cannot quite find the link to right now) claims that it has been the growing prevalence of interfaith marriage that has acted as a conduit for greater religious acceptance and tolerance in American society at large.

Among Catholics, 22% are in an interfaith marriage. Among Evangelical Protestants, that ratio is 32%. Among Jews, it is 31%. And among mainline Protestants, it is 46%. These figures lend some credence to the scholar’s view. To quote a line from Star Wars, “only a Sith (of the dark side) deals in Absolutes.

So going back to the matter at hand, within the American cultural context, Shamcey’s views would generally be regarded as tending towards religious intolerance by a majority of its people. In closed societies in fact, that sort of reasoning would support a caste system where intermarriage would lead to social stigma which makes it strange, given the humble socio-economic status of the contestants’ families.

The answers supplied by both Venus and Shamcey would be seen either as a product of ignorance or a sign of personal or cultural arrogance. An unwillingness to admit that one has ever made any sort of mistake in one’s life is similar in nature to maintaining a view that only one set of faith-based beliefs are true. It is no wonder, given the sort of monolithic Catholicism practised in the Philippines, why it remains one of the few places in the world where public debate over reproductive health and responsible parenthood or divorce for that matter still rages on.

The Shallows

This cultural and religious monotheism pops up in many areas in Philippine society. I have previously highlighted our response to the World Values Survey in which churches emerged as the one single institution that garnered almost universal trust and confidence (placing us in the same league as Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Morocco). Our country may not be called Philippinestan; and, our people may not be required to wear veils over their heads, but in a cultural sense, they in fact do.

It was not for lack of beauty or brains that our contestants failed to secure the Ms Universe crown. It was perhaps due to a lack of independent thinking or a broadened worldview. In other words, Filipinos tend to take a very dogmatic approach in developing their thoughts and ideas, adopting the official world view handed to them in a sort of unthinking or mindless way.

As F. Sionil Jose asserted recently, there just seems to be an intellectual and cultural malaise of shallowness afflicting the Filipino. Now before I get bunched together with the anti-Pinoy (and for that matter anti-Christian) crowd, let me qualify Jose’s assertion by saying that to some extent this is partly to do with modern technology and isn’t confined to Filipinos alone.

As in the book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, one could mount an argument that in a world where the word google is a verb, where e-books show us the feedback from other people before forming our own thoughts regarding the author’s thesis or narrative, and where cloud computing enables us to select friends, music and reading material based on what we are currently viewing, our ability to pay focused attention in reflectively forming a considered view has been seriously undermined if not impaired.

But even before the digital revolution converted us all into a bunch of twitterers (enunciating our views before ruminating), reading culture among Filipinos has been sorely missed (“why read and form our own views when we have other people to do that for us?”). Jose’s prognostications are echoed in the pop scene by music guru Toti Dalmacion who has lamented over the years about the narrow scope of the average Pinoy’s listening palette (although he recently acknowledges that this is slowly changing).

Both Jose and Dalmacion represent opposite ends of the cultural spectrum between high and low art (although Toti might contest the characterization of what he does as art). Both are considered mavericks in their field, yet recognized for their accomplishments. It is not that they want to see everyone subscribing to their particular sensibilities (Sionil’s independent bookstore Solidaridad and Dalmacion’s now defunct Groove Nation record bar attest to their high standards). Those with an astute sense of literary or musical awareness after all revel in the exclusive nature of their proclivities (for them the kind of material one reads, watches or listens to matters because they define the “you”-ness of you). It is more a question of why aren’t there MORE Filipinos who engage in similar pursuits.

In other words, why do the vast majority of our countrymen simply shut themselves out from cultural exposure? Why do they subscribe to the orthodoxies that they have been fed with by the “shallow” media sources or their church? Why do they fail to dig deeper, explore or venture out on their own (as if doing so would spell mental or social suicide)?

This is more than just an intellectual wank by a bunch of grumpy elitists. The same thing can be applied to governance–to the way our leaders manage economic policy in particular. Successive governments (the current one included) have been quite happy to apply the orthodoxy of Washington’s economic high priests in determining the course of development for the country, as I have previously pointed out. The result is an economy that has been described as being too “narrow, shallow and hollow” by the same experts who ironically espouse the same official world view.

The failure of our nation to rapidly catch-up with the early- and late-industrializing nations of Continental Europe and East Asia despite our rich natural endowments of beauty and resources including a skilled and well-educated workforce has long been the topic of conversation within the development community. Yet anyone who dares question the establishment’s formula gets labelled a radical or heretic and then treated as a pariah.

It seems it doesn’t matter whether we are competing in a pageant of beauty and brains or a marketplace for ideas, goods and services. When it comes to answering some of the most basic of questions, Filipinos tend to rely on a purely formulaic and dogmatic approach. Unfortunately, in the diverse and pluralist world that we live in, that sort of mindset will simply land us among the runner-ups instead of the world’s best.

Terno at Ten

I pose ten questions to Toti Dalmacion, head of Terno Recordings, which marks its “tenth” anniversary this year with a concert featuring the French indie pop sensation, Tahiti 80.


Q1: What made you think of starting your own record label back in 2001?

Technically it was around 2003, but the thought of starting my own label has been around since high school, and that’s in the 80’s for those who don’t know. Anyway, I jumped the gun by a year, calling it the “10th” anniversary, because we never had an anniversary, ever; and well, the world is supposed to end next year!

Q2: Did you draw inspiration from the main character of Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity (Rob Gordon) who went from owning a record store to starting a label? Like him you owned a record bar.

Actually, it’s the other way around. I might have been his inspiration because the story is just so autobiographically spot-on; it’s uncanny! Seriously, it was inevitable, really, and the most natural progression for me.

Q3: Is there a particular Terno Recordings sound or ethos? How would you go about recruiting bands; or perhaps more to the point, what do you look for in a band before signing them?

At the start, it was supposed to be strictly “indie pop” in the jangly and twee sense, but being that I really like all sorts of music under the “indie” umbrella, it became more of a varied bunch.

I never really made it a point to seek bands. They’re mostly recommended, or I chance upon them, or they approach me. I look for good material first and foremost, and if that’s not apparent, then at least good musicianship which can be developed with some guidance from me. Or if the band has neither of those two, then it has to have some interesting quality which hopefully translates onstage.

Q4: The diversity and breadth of talent under Terno is truly amazing. They seem to appeal to different niches that no one in the local scene seems to be serving at the moment. Is that your basic strategy? To tap into those unserved sections of the market?

It is the basic strategy particularly because I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s just me and my penchant for being different. I don’t think I’d get a band that’s a dime a dozen in the scene or just typical. I have made some decisions and choices before wherein I chose to deviate from this to adjust to the bigger market or play the local music industry game a bit, and I’ve suffered for it. But yes, I’m interested in those bands or segments that no other record company, major or independent would want to touch with a ten foot pole… as long as they tickle my fancy.

I don’t really tailor fit or plan according to the “market” here. Crazy as it may sound, I’m my own market in the sense that other similar individuals who are more adventurous and open to new ideas and sounds will tune in to the same thing. They’re out there. Not in the millions, yes, but there’s THAT market for sure.

Q5: What were the obstacles and challenges you faced in building the Terno label at the onset?

The major difficulty has always been money. It was then, as it is now. Terno’s not making money because it’s purely about the music first and business second, being pro-artist in the creative sense as well. It’s that passion for music that’s fuelling it. If Terno was probably a label abroad then we would see financial rewards due to the size of what being ‘niche” there is.

Here, with piracy, illegal downloads and my 50-50 policy with bands–and as an aside, I don’t even own the material forever–makes it difficult for me to recoup my investments, but somehow we find ways to get around that and continue. Terno could use some funding, definitely, and it should be bigger; but for the past years, it’s more about the passion, blood, sweat and tears.

Q6: What would you say were the major milestones or memorable moments in building the label?

I really think the initial label gigs, TERNO AU-GO-GO, held quarterly from 2005 to 2006, were a huge factor in creating the buzz for the label and the hype for the bands. Up Dharma Down for example gained their initial audience from Terno Au Go Go then, creating the buzz that propelled them. So, yeah, the early days were very memorable when we would pack Saguijo with 500-700 people with the crowd spilling out on to the street.

Early days: an old poster promoting Terno Au Go Go, the quarterly event that was instrumental in generating a buzz for Terno artists like Up Dharma Down.

It’s still fun these days, doing the various Terno nights in other venues and at Saguijo wherein I’m told Terno’s is still the biggest draw. It’s a continuous process building the label and the bands on the roster, and this is done through the gigs. I don’t really feature anyone outside of the roster, except for opening slots for aspirants and new bands who want some help. Terno is not a “prod” wherein I get big name bands to pull in the crowd. As you can see, it’s triple the effort for Terno ever since, just relying on its own roster.

Terno just promotes those who are on Terno, and we build our audience as we go along. Amazingly, it does grow with new faces every year joining the die hards. Other than that, it’s the recognition the label gets for pushing the envelope. As far as milestones are concerned, Terno has loads of medals and accolades. Hopefully, money follows at some point.

Q7: Can you compare the domestic scene from when Terno began a decade ago and the present? Have there been major gains as far as the music and the audience are concerned?

There was definitely more of the usual then and not many of the new and global sounding acts. Typical Pinoy rock and “opm” but that has changed and presently, there’s a plethora of new bands that are fearless with their music, knowing they will not reach a wider audience but still having a go at their dreams.

Music appreciation has definitely improved from what I’ve seen when we’re booked for other events, at schools, etc. As far as the Terno audience goes though, it has always been about the music, and you really feel and see it via the gigs where people really “listen” to the bands playing.

Q8: What changes would you still like to see in the future as far as the music scene is concerned?

(I would like to see) Help from the government via grants, especially for acts that have the potential to reach a wider international audience as is the case with most Terno artists, to be able to tour abroad. It’s connected to tourism as well as these bands represent the country wherever they go. Other changes might just include raising standards, really: raising the benchmark for good quality in order to really compete with what’s out there.

Q9: For your tenth anniversary, you have chosen to bring in a French indie pop band, Tahiti 80. Why Tahiti 80?

Well, there are loads of other favorite foreign acts of mine that I could have brought in. The Blue Nile for instance would’ve been a nice coup or The Wedding Present. Paul Weller–I wouldn’t be able to afford. XTC’s out of the question but I wanted a band that was neither too “in” nor too new and current. An act, that had longevity and made very good, accessible pop songs that were of good quality. Not pop in the Black Eyed Peas sense but good, timeless pop that grabs the ear easily at first listen.

There’s but a limited number of bands, who are consistent like that, and with Tahiti 80, I was supposed to bring them in as far back 2007 and the years that succeeded, but I didn’t have the funding or the sponsors. (It was) Not much different this time around, but I figured why not grab the bull by the horns and celebrate Terno’s existence with a really good, credible fun band. Not commercial enough but not too underground, ear friendly for first-time and/or female listeners. Just as an aside, 95% of the ticket reservations so far have been made by women who make up quite a chunk of Terno’s audience.

Q10: After these ten years, what’s next for Terno Recordings?

Hopefully, we continue to trudge on, make some money, and put out more good stuff, not just for the local market but for an international one and really put the Philippines on the map, cliché as that may sound…. Well there’s that and the further fuelling of my ‘messianic complex’, ha-ha!

After all these years, Toti Dalmacion’s passion and determination seem just as fervent as ever. There aren’t that many individuals in the Philippine music scene who have contributed to the flourishing of new talent while sticking to their principles the way he has. If the last ten years is anything to go by, we can expect much more creative talent to blossom from his label in the future.

In celebration of Terno Recordings’ “tenth” anniversary, Tahiti 80 will be playing for one night in October, Friday the 21st at The Tents, Alphaland / Southgate. They will be supported by Terno’s very own Up Dharma Down and Radio Active Sago Project. 

A-Stig-matics, pare!

“Here’s a song, baby, and I sing it to you” goes the opening line of the opening track from Straight Down the Bitter End the freshman album of the concept band Stigmatics under Terno Recordings the indie outfit of Toti Dalmacion which is based in the Philippines (hence the flag in the photo).

The duo is comprised of Grandi0s0, musical alchemist who manages the instruments and vocalist funb0y. With a name like theirs, you truly wonder what sort of scars both psychological and spiritual they intend to expose. No wonder these evil geniuses prefer to use stagenames in lieu of their true identities.

With its ominous sounding synths providing an eerie prelude for what is to come, you are swept in to the narrative as you get a sense of the pain, regret, and yes, the angst the tragic artist feels. This is vaudevillian rock at its finest: a confession set to music by “a broken man, without anymore plans” who is “only good for singing my blues.”

The wide expanse opened up by the “sinister-soul-blues” genre pioneered byGrandi0s0 the other half of the more popish sounding Dr StrangeLuv undulates naturally. Most of the songs in between the opener entitled Song and Dance Man and the closer to this opus Save Me switches frequently from the sonic pace of punk infused barbarity to the quaint, laid back style of country-Western laconicity.

These alternating currents charge the entire album and provide it with the tempo to carry you through all of fifteen tracks. The psychological journey involves ecstatic highs and the dolldroms of despondent lows.

It kicks into full gear with the tandem Killing Spree and Guilty Conscience. In their Facebook bio, the band writes that their music would not “sound out of place in Sergio Leone and Tarantino flicks”. This is the impression one gets from this initial pair of songs.

This Twisted Toxic Thing Love goes from a Pulp-styled techno-sounding indie rock song and morphs into a Euro-inspired dance inferno which you would expect to hear on the dancefloor of a Russian disco: futuristic and nostalgic at the same time.

The same kind of twist is spun on Something Got Lost Somewhere and Walking Down My Baby’s Street. The psychedellic space age vibe one gets particularly with the latter is utterly catchy and danceable, dare I say, like a B-52’s song on steroids.

Blinding Light is monotonic, repetitive, and sinister as it calls on you to “pick up the pieces, clean up the mess…give it a rest.” Vocalist funb0y on much of the album does not so much as sing his lines as much as recite them in a droll reminiscent at times of Johnny Cash, Lou Reed or Nick Cave depending on the mood he is in, I suppose.

Nightsong with its reggae beat is an interlude for the entire album. It is a perfect accompaniment for any nocturnal journey inviting the ghosts of the artist or whoever is listening to come out and haunt him as he makes his way through a thick forest of painful memories. No wonder he attempts to “drink the wine of forgetfulness.”

The second act revs up with Metamphetamine Blues. Indeed much of this album sounds a lot like a drug induced hallucination complete with frantic highs mixed with crashing waves spiralling out of control. The industrial guitar riffs and whiney solos mixed with sampled spoken word would make William S Burroughs or Tom Waits proud.  The disintegrating cacauphony that unravels gives you a mental image of a wax museum at 100 degrees or a conflagrating super-8 film.

At the troughs, confrontations with reality occur as in My Heart is Famished which evokes a gospelly church setting with its moog organic feel replete with gonging bells. An intervention seems to be occuring here with the artist conversing repentantly with his mother and then his sister.

The final act brings things to a head with the Blues Brotherly baseline of God’s Eye ushering you into the final scene. The translike mumbling of funb0y here weaves in and out of the sonic effects of guitars, synth recordings and samples in a confused frenetic manner.

With Save Me, we return to the ballady feel of the opening track. I can’t help but make comparisons once again to Nick Cave as the artist repetitively implores in mantra-like fashion the object of his desire to save him from “the darkness inside of me”. The sense of impending doom is apparent. He is right on the cusp of ending it all: totally cathartic. My only suggestion is that perhaps in their next album, the band might give this muse a voice to provide a complementary perspective.

And then finally in This is My Home, very much an epilogue, you are left with the remnants of the conflict. Perhaps in the end, a sense of acceptance and contentment emerges, with the artist acknowledging “I should have been dead” as he waltzes you off into a happy oblivion.

All in all, Straight Down the Bitter End chronicles the journey of a man who has been to the other end and back: a Nietzchean tale of someone who has stared into the abyss and self-destructingly recreated himself.

A grandiose design accomplished that should be given a listening ear by anyone open enough to explore such mental states and frames. It makes me nod with approval, as I admiringly pronounce Stigmatics a band that is well and truly astig (Philippine colloquial for super-cool)!

Embracing Wanderlust

View from the Clouds by Nina Terol-Zialcita
View from the Clouds by Nina Terol-Zialcita

Different people have different reasons for packing their bags, getting on a plane, and setting off for distant lands. Some do it to take a quick break from their frenetic life and escape to sun, sea, surf… and shopping. Some do it for work, the trip necessitated by this client meeting or that conference. Others do it to survive. They pack part of their lives with them and leave the other half at home, risking social ties, emotions, and a bit of security for a larger paycheck that would allow them to support their families. Others do it for love, crossing continents and cultural boundaries to spend the rest of their lives with The One. Still others do it for the thrill of the chase, planning their sojourn months—years!—in advance then finally taking off for weeks on end, in search of colorful experiences and connections that will often lead them closer to themselves.

When I was younger, I saw traveling as a bothersome necessity, a requirement imposed by the fact that we were a family of airliners and that we had loads of free trips to use each year. I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom being gone for… maybe three-fourths of my childhood, and she compensated by taking us on these impromptu trips. Shopping in Hong Kong, zoo-going in Singapore, fun family time in Disneyland, our first limo ride in Hawaii—these travels weren’t too frequent, but they were memorable if only because it was time for everyone to be all in the same room. But since I was too young on many of those trips to fully appreciate what they entailed, I ended up just going with the flow, not expecting too much and not putting too much of myself into the experience.

As I got older, however, wanderlust crept in and there emerged a hunger—a deep yearning—to learn from the world outside of my beautifully shaped archipelago. The adventure started in 2006, when a short-lived partnership with a Singaporean firm saw me traveling out of the country on frequent, impromptu trips. I loved the feeling of connecting with and learning from colleagues from different parts of the world, and I resolved to keep traveling for work—to keep seeking out those intellectual and cultural connections that won’t necessarily come with flying on holiday.

In 2008, I took my first-ever trip as media covering an international event—the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, where my now-husband had performed and where I find myself again this year. There I met an organization and people who I now consider to be part of my “media family”. That year, too, I experienced a series of heartbreaks when I couldn’t secure the funding I needed to take two programs—one, a short journalism course in Greece, another, a graduate degree in Australia—and the hunger grew.

Maybe it was the “Fil-for” in me (my biological father is British) that kept me wanting to connect with another continent; maybe it was generations of trans-continental travel seeped into my blood. Whatever it was, a latent desire to be out into the world was seeded in every pore of my being, and milestones in my life kept happening outside of the country without me planning for them.  In 2009, my husband and I were married in the midst of the Homeless World Cup in Milan, Italy, where he performed and gave drumming workshops and I was part of the media corps.  Then in 2010, I took my first solo flight to Europe for the European Journalism Institute in Prague, Czech Republic.  It was followed by another week of traveling, writing, and connecting with friends in France. That trip—taken at 30 years old—sealed the deal for me.

I wanted to travel for work and do work (writing, researching, meeting, talking) while traveling. I wanted my life to be about these trans-continental, cross-cultural connections that don’t just happen within the confines of a single organization or a single country. I wanted to embrace the world—and I, to be fully in it.

Then, lo and behold, in 2011, the Universe decides to make me editor-in-chief of a travel magazine. (Part of the wish, granted.)

As I write this now, I am in a room surrounded by lush greenery in Kuching, Sarawak, in a hotel near the foot of the mythical Mount Santubong. It is my third time to cover the Rainforest World Music Festival, my fifth time in Sarawak, and my nth plane ride this year. I’ve had Misadventure and Mishap follow me around in airports and at my destinations, but I don’t let them stand in my way and I just treat them as part of the fun. I have a terrible cough and would really be better off resting at home, but there’s a kind of magic here—a powerful, positive energy—that I cannot deny myself.

Jamming with "rast" (Eastern modal music) - Rainforest World Music Festival (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)
Jamming with "rast" (Eastern modal music) - Rainforest World Music Festival (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)

Yesterday, while attending one of the musical workshops that are embedded into the festival, I watched an impromptu jam of three musicians from Poland and one from Iran as they introduced their kinds of zithers, multi-stringed instruments that sound more like harps and pianos than guitars, and explored the nuances and intricacies of their instruments. I was mesmerized by the soothing sounds of the zither and found myself almost in a trance as I tried to capture that moment on film. After that came another jam focusing on “rast”, what they call Eastern modal music.

I was absolutely entranced by the voice of Mamak Khadem, a beautiful Iranian woman who is defying stereotypes and cultural norms by giving a voice to the women of Iran, in a society where only men hold power. I loved the electronica and oud combination of DuOud, a duo from Tunisia and Algeria by way of Turkey, who continue to uphold their traditional music while embracing technology. Also part of that jam was Theodosii Spassov from Georgia, an amazing flutist who could produce a wide range of sounds with his shepherd’s flute, and Hamid Saedi, a handsome Iranian who was also Mamak Khadem’s husband and quite magical-sounding on the sambuka (the Persian zither). And that was only the workshops—a full night of concerts had yet to unfold.

Last night, too, over beer and cocktails at the festival’s famed “Heinekabana”, I had an eye-opening conversation with a senior colleague, John—originally from the UK, now living in Thailand—whom I had conversed with a year ago on “Asian jazz” and the “anonymity” of our music as far as our Southeast Asian neighbors were concerned. This time, though, the conversation was on the socio-political and cultural contexts of his Thailand, my Philippines, our other neighbors (Burma, Vietnam), and similar events in the United Kingdom in the 1820s.  It was part-history lesson, part-political commentary—and some of our friends had already left the table, probably thinking that they would rather go out and enjoy the music than be part of this discussion—but I loved every minute of it. These are conversations I would not be able to have back home, conversations that enrich my data bank and inform my work as a political animal back in the Philippines. This wasn’t part of the festival menu, and yet here I had it.

A midnight jam at the hotel bar with Senor Victor Valdes on the Mexican harp (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)
A midnight jam at the hotel bar with Senor Victor Valdes on the Mexican harp (Photo by Nina Terol-Zialcita)

It is moments like these—moments wrapped in pure musical bliss or intense intellectual and cultural exchange—that make me excited to pack my bags again and again, and endure all the inconveniences of modern-day travel. These are moments when I feel the world’s many lines being blurred and even momentarily erased, as we access knowledge and “knowing” from all parts of the world in one space.

Here, in this festival, for instance, there are no boundaries between me and the musicians of Kenge Kenge from Kenya, who are only a handshake and a smile away.  There was no language barrier between me and Señor Victor Valdes of Mexico, whose enchanting performance on the Mexican harp put us on the same plane without having to exchange words with each other. I didn’t need to understand Mamak Khadem’s words to be moved to tears by her beautiful, haunting chanting. The customs and traditions of the island nation of Vanuatu are within reach—if only I open them long enough to see the performances of Leweton Women’s Water Music. To me, THIS is what traveling is all about—it is not just about the journey or the destination itself, but also, and more importantly, about the people you meet and learn from.

This is just one event of many, one trip of several more that I will be taking this year, but it captures perfectly my connection with travel and the world. As I step out of this room and onto the sunshine, I will greet each experience with arms wide open, embracing this powerful wanderlust that has brought me here and that makes me privileged enough to sing, dance, and live as one with the world—even if it’s only for a few short days.

Time for some strange luvin’

It is not that hard to picture the lads of Dr StrangeLuv a band out of Laguna in the “greater” part of the Greater Manila Area, trudging along the terrain of their suburban environs like the mythological Sysyphus moving back and forth from home to school to mall to church and so on for all eternity. Sissypuss their debut album is no doubt inspired by such travails.

The duo comprised of the “obnoxious brothers” Grandioso and El Scum aka “the Ingenious Bastards” are the strangest thing to come out of Manila’s outer rim of late. It is out in suburbia where bands like this (Pavement that quintessential alternative rock band out of Stockton, California being a prime example), comprised of perfectly normal kids isolated from the city-center, with loads of time on their hands, are able to lazily stumble into a sound that teases out the mundaneness, absurdity and sinister aspects of middle class existence.

Sissypuss their freshman effort can only be described as a dis-assemblage and repackaging of various cultural forms both musical and lyrical into a strange but familiar mix. In it, a lo-fi quality is layered with complex samples and sonic punk melodies. It’s sort of Fantastic Plastic Machine meets Beck.

The closest comparison the band claims their listeners make of them is with American indie band, Guided by Voices, but for me that is too superficial a comparison. As I mentioned, their style is really a pastiche of different musical artifacts from different periods.

In Be the Boss a kind of country twang is combined with an almost spoken word-ish delivery and some funky guitar riffs reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. In Aight’ Ma, their lead vocalist mimics Bob Dylan. In one track I listened to at the maiden voyage of The Show with No Name (SND.FM) their sound approximated an apocalyptic Johnny Cash.

They describe their style as “space age blues funk and anti-folk”. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gimme Some Mo’. It is a track that could provide the auditory background to a scene in a Quentin Tarantino movie (you know d

uring that part where the villain is about to cut off an appendage from a hapless bystander). A clever fusion of disparate elements that creates a cinematic feel to it.

This visual appeal is maintained in I’m Still Breathing where they serve up a dreamy sound track that conjures up a starry scene from a Western flick where the cowboy rides off into the sunset, in this instance brandishing an electronic raygun flashing in the darkening skies.

Some might say it is inappropriate to compare music to film, but with Dr StrangeLuv I think it is inescapable and what makes their debut so triumphant. In dreaming up Sissypuss, visual imagery and atmospherics serve as just as important an aesthetic reference point as chords and beats.

In this sense, listening to Sissypuss is like watching an indie flick comprised of disparate narratives woven into one. Each track represents a different scene with a unique sense of time and place. Some might regard this an ambitious effort for the newcomers, but in the end, the collection amazingly hangs well together.

(Dr StrangeLuv is the latest signing of Terno Recordings)