Strange Sounds from Southeast Asia: An Introduction to the Region’s Experimental Labels

khana-bierbood-1244

Khana Bierbood

For decades, the 11 countries that comprise Southeast Asia played second fiddle to their bigger neighbors when it came to underground experimental music. China, Japan, and South Korea, for example, always had better infrastructure to support alternative tastes, which led to the emergence of more organized subcultures. But that deeply ingrained dynamic has finally begun to change in recent years as Southeast Asia’s young population and expanding middle class become emboldened with rising spending power and disruptive ideas.

Tokyo and Shanghai may still be miles ahead in terms of diverse clubs, but the region is now catching up in other areas. Music festivals such as Yogyakarta’s Nusasonic, Hanoi’s Sound Stuff Festival and Singapore’s Playfreely bring together noise artists to collaborate in intimate settings. Venues such as Kuala Lumpur’s fono, Bangkok’s JAM, and Manila’s Green Papaya Art Projects have become sanctuaries for hypnotic live electronics, providing safe spaces for like-minded listeners to congregate. Meanwhile, bands such as Indonesian metal duo Senyawa and Singaporean grindcore outfit Wormrot have gained global acclaim, touring in the U.S. and Europe.

Record labels, however, are perhaps the best indicator of Southeast Asia’s sonic progress. The region is home to an ever-expanding roster of imprints catering to all kinds of genres, including math rock, screamo, and psych-funk. But a deeper dive reveals a weird and wonderful world of avant-garde labels that can’t be neatly categorized. Electronic and indie, with styles that range from energetic to laconic and from linear to abstract, these off-grid record labels transcend boundaries with their deeply textural compositions, thoughtful conceptualization, and most importantly, strong commitment to showcasing Southeast Asia’s niche sounds.

DIVISI62

The Jakarta-based venture explores Indonesian identities through deconstructed tribal sounds. It kicked off 2019 with Prambanan / Mabad, a two-track gem from co-founder Wahono that features syncopated percussions and chimes. Last year’s Bumi Uthiri EP from Uwalmassa is a study in minimal gamelan, a kind of indigenous orchestra; the collaborative album Animisme, also from 2018, incorporates distorted vocals and Timbaland-esque beats. DIVISI62 artists are constantly reinterpreting and reinventing Indonesia’s cultural traditions: a worthy initiative in a country where widespread ethnic diversity has complicated national identity.

Ujikaji Records

Observatory

The Observatory

Since 2011, this Singaporean label has been a pillar of the city-state’s experimental scene with a range of works that span free jazz, avant-garde pop, and glitch. Nothing ever seems too “out there” for Ujikaji, which aptly means “experiment” in the Bahasa Melayu language. Last year’s album Lies intersperses dislocated loops with bittersweet melodies, a pairing that feels like a reflection on technology’s destructive effects. Meanwhile, a split EP between Singapore’s art-rock pioneers The Observatory and Japanese psych-rock legends Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. is a tempo-changing beast that will blast you into the stratosphere.

mü-nest

Lush instrumental synthscapes inspired by nature and intimacy dominate the catalog of this Malaysian imprint. These six albums are largely ambient, but rather than focusing on the spacey qualities of the genre, they’re all infused with a sense of lo-fi energy. The lines between electronic and classical are blurred on 2017’s Dance EP, on which Marihiko Hara and Polar M imagine physical movement as the rhythms of seasons, time, and emotions. On okamotonoriaki’s Happy Endingfrom 2016, electro-acoustics and folktronica are blended in a way that brings to mind the cinematic atmospheres of Erik Satie and early Röyksopp.

CHINABOT

Hazy polyrhythms, psychedelic noise, and Lao mor lam all come together on this pan-Asian label. Launched in 2017, it quickly emerged as the main collaborative vehicle for the continent’s young experimentalists, as well as a unifying voice in Asia’s still-nascent scene. Cambodian-born founder Saphy Vong, aka Lafidki, creates a world of high-frequency soundscapes with field recordings that speak to his birth country’s history. Meanwhile, prolific Singaporean producer Fauxe worked with traditional Malay and Tamil samples to create Ikhlas, a 16-track marvel incorporating influences that range from hip-hop to halftime.

Syrphe

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Luong Hue Trinh

Syrphe may not be physically based in the region—label head Cedrik Fermont currently lives in Berlin—but it’s been vital in spreading Southeast Asian noise to international audiences nonetheless. Compilations such as Not Your World Music: Noise in South East Asia and a live recording of drone tracks in Yangon are reminders to Western audiences that over on this side of the world, these kinds of approaches to music-making don’t just exist, but thrive. On a 21-minute track called “Somnambulism” by Vietnam’s Lương Huệ Trinh, for example, a wall of static gradually lulls listeners into a meditative state.

Island of the Gods

Since its first release in 2016, Bali-based Island of the Gods has steadfastly explored Indonesia’s trance-like traditional music. But rather than focus on the gamelan, the country’s most well-known instrument, each of the three albums take listeners on a deep journey through the jungle. Label head Dan Mitchell likes to invite artists such as Black Merlin, Melody As Truth‘s Jonny Nash, and Firecracker Recordings’ Lindsay Todd to Bali, where they use field recordings as well as electronic and acoustic instruments to interpret the lush flora and diverse fauna around them.

Sphearic Records

Founded in Bangkok, Sphearic Records began in 2017 as a creative holding-space of sorts for the Swiss-born producer Jerome Doudet, aka Yantra Mandir. His dark-ambient beats—which make up a large portion of the label’s output to date—mix Eastern samples from his ample vinyl collection with sharp modular synths. Since his recent move to Koh Chang, an island near the Thai-Cambodian border, Doudet has expanded Sphearic’s mission to include releases from artists based in Japan, Thailand, India, and Switzerland, the bulk of which will arrive later this year.

Guruguru Brain

Heavily focused on psychedelic rock from all corners of the Asian continent, this project operates out of Amsterdam and Tokyo. It currently only has two Southeast Asian artists under its belt—most are Japanese—but that number is likely to increase in the near future. It kicked off 2019 with Strangers from the Far East from Thailand’s Khana Bierbood (which means “strange brew” in Thai), a work that combines ’60s surf tones and traditional mor lam music. Meanwhile, sitar solos, guitar riffs, gentle vocals, and a whiff of Madchester feature on the hypnotic Sabdatanmantra, by the Jakarta-based Ramayana Soul.

-Nisa Kreems

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