Eclectic shock: five of the best new Asian bands

The most exciting new sounds to be found in Asia are a real mixed bunch, writes Lauren Vincent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 8:13am

As a region, Asia may be known for its wide variety of music, from the commercial pop of South Korea and Hong Kong to the various indie scenes and the ubiquitous karaoke rooms in Cambodia and Thailand. But when it comes to popular music there has never been a "pan-Asian" sound, and there probably will never be one, at least not in an alternative music culture that relies on word-of-mouth and grass-roots support more than major label or corporate backing.

While the ethnic and indigenous music that once prevailed in the region can be placed within national contexts, most contemporary groups tend to find inspiration in the popular Western bands that emerged from the 1960s onwards, as well as European and US electronic artists that started to work their machines from the late '70s. The turnouts for the recent Kraftwerk and Blur concerts in Hong Kong hint at likely arbiters of inspiration here.

As such, and despite the various strands of new wave and electro having had a particularly strong influence in the region (especially in Hong Kong), there is no way to pigeonhole the most exciting new bands to have emerged in Asia. From spiritual, alternative folk-rock from Jakarta, to experimental post-punk coming out of Shanghai, and amalgamated, twisted dub sounds in Manila, there's a wide variety of sounds to be heard across the region. Here's our selection of favourites for 2013.

Polka Wars ( Jakarta )

The heady, humid fug that weighs heavy over Jakarta must be having a strong affect on the myriad musicians coming out of the Indonesian capital.

Jakarta was by far the toughest city to choose a band from. This is partly what makes Polka Wars such an intriguing prospect. Having formed in 2010 the band, which consist of Billy Saleh (guitar, vocals), Xandega Tahajuansya (bass, vocals), Giovanni Rahmadeva (drums, vocals) and Karaen Raja (guitar, vocals), have played a number of successful shows over the past two years.

They are set to release their debut full-length album later this year, and the record will feature other notable Indonesian musicians including Sigit Pramudita from Tigapagi, and Ade Paloh from Sore. Look out for the standout tracks Horse Hooves and Coraline.

In terms of their sound, they lie somewhere between Spiritualized, Smashing Pumpkins and Alt-J, and their measured, methodical, dreamy approach makes them a real pleasure to listen to. They are ephemeral while still being grounded, and they play with a melancholy that never quite spills over into melodrama.

Sub:shaman (Singapore)

If you're a fan of Portishead's Beth Gibbons or the multitalented singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, you will have a soft spot for Weish, the lead singer of Sub:shaman, who has a haunting and mysterious voice. Much like Beijing's Dice, the five-piece only formed last year so are still finding their feet (and are arguably the freshest of the five we've picked).

They possess a certain roughness that will probably be smoothed out over time, and recently benefited from working with world-renowned record producer Steve Lillywhite, which they described as an "altogether enriching - albeit surreal - experience for us, in our band's short history".

They have plans to enter the studio later this year to record an EP. For now there are only snippets of material online. If you're ever in Singapore, look them up. In terms of direct influence, in their own words "the biggest culprits would have to be The Mars Volta, Zechs Marquis, and pretty much anything by the Rodriguez-Lopez clan".

Stalin Gardens (Shanghai)

Arguably one of the most challenging bands on this list, the aptly named Stalin Gardens are hard to pin down. And nor would they want you to try. Last year the high-school students released a nine-track LP called Shanghai Void that sounded somewhere between Joy Division, Vatican Shadow, Nirvana and Jack Kerouac - all crunched guitars and battered percussion with haunted vocals somewhere between spoken word, mad rambling and quasi-singing.

It's not an easy listen by any means, but the journey is worth taking - especially for music fans looking for something that goes beyond the traditional modes of songwriting and structure.

The group is made up of Julien Raffaud on vocals and guitar, Yingzi on bass and Wei Qi on drums, and they used to be called Rank Moist Vegetation - which provides some idea of their approach. It's not whimsical, but it's not earnest either. It's caustic, but not overly offensive.

It's worth repeating that this music won't be for everyone. But given the plethora of paint-by-numbers bands out there, it's refreshing to have a trio like this who are forging their own path.

Bent Lynchpin (Manila)

According to many, the alternative sound is alive and well in the Philippines, thanks in large part to this collective - made up of Fred Sandoval, Malek Lopez, Mark Zero and Caliph8. The group came about after collaborating on projects - including film scores and session work for other artists - as producers, multi-instrumentalists and arrangers.

Together they fuse elements of rock, hip hop, trip hop and electronica into sometimes disorderly, sometimes cohesive, hypnotic jams that sound like you're in the middle of a David Lynch nightmare or hearing the soundtrack to an unfinished Samuel Beckett play.

Although each member has carved a distinguished reputation as a soloist in a variety of genres, their shared enthusiasm as well as a desire for improvisation led them to record together.

The key to their approach is their use of both analog and digital tools, from guitars, keys and bass, to combine sound effects and samples that are then deconstructed, reshaped and rearranged in the studio. The Manila-based quartet's sound has been described by the local music press as being a "bitch's brew". That's a recommendation money can't buy.

Dice (Beijing)

Another trio from the mainland, though this time their influences could be described as less left field than Stalin Gardens and slightly more accessible. But they're still very much part of the grass-roots scene, and are likely to gain more traction this year. They formed a few years ago (and only played live for the first time in 2012) and have been heavily supported by fellow Beijing artists including Carsick Cars.

Their sound can be described as folk-rock and is ethereal and dreamy (think Nick Drake meets The Doors). By singing in their native tongue they are introducing Western audiences to an indigenous sound and temperament.

"Our members come from Beijing and Guizhou, and we want to make music that is based on extemporaneous creations and our own deep thoughts. As for our performances, we would rather use the word 'communication'. We are not just performing on the stage. It's more like a communication process between the three of us. We express ourselves, and our music, through extemporaneous and psychedelic means, and try to make them understandable to the audience," says band member Li Xiangyu.