Tag Archives: Rock

The Kaleidoscopic Sound of Southeast Asian Psych-Funk

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Cambodia Space Project

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Southeast Asia was home to a wealth of progressive, offbeat funk that was as festive as it was meaningful. Artists like Indonesia’s The Rollies, the Philippines’ Blackbuster, Vietnamese “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Mai Le Huyen, and Thailand’s molam (country-psych) empress Chaweewan Dumnern paired psychedelia’s traditional hallmarks of surreal lyrics, modal melodies, and extended wah-wah guitar solos with groovy pop, jazz, and disco. Some were more influenced by the Santanas and Funkadelics of the Western world, while others bore the influence of the region’s folk music, such as Thailand’s luk thung, incorporating indigenous instruments native to rural heartlands into their songs.

These gems, many of which exist on comprehensive compilations like Soundway’s Sound of Siam and the Cambodian Soul Sounds series, continue to inspire a wave of contemporary musicians from around the region and beyond. “We’ve surfed an astonishing cultural revival coming out of Cambodia, particularly Cambodian Rock, a sound of King Norodom’s 1960’s Phnom Penh,” says Julien Poulson, founder and lead guitarist of The Cambodian Space Project.

The Cambodian Space Project adds a hefty dose of tropical sci-fi and shimmy-shaking to their interpretation of old Khmer pop and soul tracks, inspired by the wealth of go-go, mambo, and big-band artists that flourished before the brutal Khmer Rouge dictatorship. “Cambodia’s pre-war rock ‘n’ roll reverberates and echoes through time and space and are as cosmic as ever,” Poulson, who also plays guitar for Bokor Mountain Magic Band, says. Taking a cue from ‘60s vocalists such as Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, The Cambodian Space Project’s lead singer Kak Channthy says she likes to channel Tina Turner on stage—but wants to make the sound wholly her own.

Today’s artists are doing more than just revisiting Southeast Asia’s golden era of kaleidoscopic groove; they’re reinventing it. Midnight Runners, a Bandung-based duo that crafts head-spinning boogie sampled from ‘70s/’80s Indonesian disco, are all too aware of being categorized as revivalists. “We’re trying to re-modernize the style with today’s digital tools, which includes bass, drums, controllers, and software…That keeps the sound more or less old and modern,” explains Midnight Runners frontman Munir Harry Septiandry. “I hate to compare which is better; both will move your feet to the beat.”

Both the past and present are audible on Midnight Runners’ latest album Rare Essence, released on Spanish label Neon Finger in February, where the group merges a ‘70s library-record sound with slap bass lines and sultry synths. “Seventies and ‘80s stuff was a lot groovier, dirty, and mature… I started listening to those records as a kid, and that childhood made me funky today,” Septiandry says.

The artists listed below may span the entire funky universe, including garage, electro, and jazz, but they all head toward an unbound state in which time flows freely and the body feels light. Listen on for a multi-dimensional perspective of Southeast Asia’s deep relationship with psych-funk.

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Sheer Mag Place Their Faith in Love and Dissent

Sheer Mag

Photo by Marie Lin.

It’s been just over 48 years since the Stonewall riots, an event identified as a turning point in the gay rights movement in America. There were subsequent raids and protests during the late ’70s and early ’80s in Canada as well, with Operation Soap and gay rights activists who resisted against their provincial government. As a result, Quebec enacted legislation that protected from discrimination over sexual orientation. Not all movements net tangible results, and neither are those results a fix-all, but what they do demonstrate is that resistance and dissent can bring about change.

Organized, impassioned rebellion against oppression is an act of optimism—a belief that, in time, things can get better. That same spirit of hopeful resistance courses throughout Sheer Mag’s gritty rock ‘n’ roll.

From the first notes of the glam-rock strut “Meet Me In The Street,” which opens their new record Need To Feel Your Love (which, fittingly, contains a song inspired by the Stonewall riots), the Philadelphia band invites unity, dissent, and disorder. “When we walk together, it feels all right! Meet me in the street!” frontwoman Tina Halladay thunders, adding, “Come on down and get in the mix.”

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Discovering the World of Italian Psych Rock

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Italian artists have produced innumerable contributions to culture over the past few millennia—opera comes to mind, Michelangelo and da Vinci too—but the country’s vibrant psychedelic rock scene doesn’t receive quite as much appreciation. Granted, none of it quite lives up to the Sistine Chapel, but even the country’s prog bands have bubbled above the radar, largely thanks to Goblin’s synthesizer-laden horror soundtracks. But there’s just as much goodness to be found in prog’s sister genre.

Of course, Italy has a rich musical tradition that dates back centuries, providing fertile ground for inspiration. Puccini’s operas, Vivaldi’s baroque symphonies, and Verdi’s bombastic classical compositions all feed into Italian rock as much as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Nowhere is that clearer than in the bands that popped up in response to the burgeoning psych rock scene in the ‘60s and their antecedents.

As with the rest of the world, the late 1960s and ‘70s were decades of upheaval in Italy, marked by both violent battles between political extremes as well as great social progress. Art reflected that reality—just look at the nihilistic Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, or the giallos by Dario Argento and Mario Bava that made normal life seem filled with uncanny horrors—to say nothing of the brutal, amoral polizieschi crime films of Enzo G. Castellari and Ruggero Deodato. The psychedelic rock bands of the time may have fought back against the darkness with whimsy instead of cynicism, but they too were touched by the ténèbre.

That approach continues to this day. Modern Italian psych rockers pull from foreign sources like The Flaming Lips, Kyuss, and Earthless, but still remain steeped in the traditions of their home country. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the varied touchstones of the genre for you to check out, as well as a look at the wide variety of groups carrying the torch today.

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Album of the Day: Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, “Youth Detention​ ​(​Nail My Feet Down To The Southside Of Town)”

With his band the Glory Fires, Lee Bains III has spent the better part of the past decade confronting Southern stereotypes. In their familiar-to-some blend of classic rock, hardcore, melodic punk, and rootsy country-grunge, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires insists on a version of Southern rock that interrogates its region’s history while explicitly fighting for Southern progress.

With its sprawling 17-song tracklist, Youth Detention (Nail My Feet to the Southside of Town) finds Bains zeroing in his focus as a songwriter. The album is primarily an expansive, multi-angled exploration of the way in which Bains’s hometown of Birmingham socializes its children along racial and class lines.

Songs like “Black & White Boys” and “Good Old Boy” are fierce polemics that jolt the band’s message into sharp clarity, while the album centerpiece triplet of “I Heard God!,” “Crooked Letters,” and “I Can Change!,” complete with a sample of children chanting and audio snippets of protester rallying calls, show off the band’s London Calling-level ambition.

Bains is a bookish songwriter whose intersectional Southern-punk has always been interested in the colliding worlds of religion, history, gender, and identity. With Youth Detention, he’s made his most thoroughly urgent album, one that concerns itself with the problems of the here and now more thoroughly, and convincingly, than any of his previous work, which tended to be more historically-minded.

But for all his scholarly leanings, Bains is an unpretentious, pop-loving, rock ‘n’ roller keen on physical detail as a songwriter and sympathetic to the occasional anthemic chorus (“Whitewash,” “Nail My Feet Down To the Southside of Town”). On Youth Detention, which blends the band’s heady conceptualizing with a sturdy batch of solemn sing-alongs, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires have finally made an album worthy of the group’s outsized ambition.

Jonathan Bernstein 

Album of the Day: Sweeping Exits, “Glitter & Blood”

One of the reasons that horror is an enticing experience is the knowledge that it will eventually end. Whether you’re playing Resident Evil or watching It Follows, we’re allowed the adrenaline rush of feeling like we’re in danger, without actually being in any danger at all. Sweeping Exits, a queer classic glam-rock band from Portland, switch this on its head with their latest record, Glitter & Blood. It’s a horror record you wish wouldn’t end, because in their world, queer people are in power.

Glitter & Blood is a clever repositioning of horror dynamics; the queer protagonist, Queen of the Vampires, ushers in the end of the human race. But this is a moment to cheer after the oppression, violence, and bigotry she experiences at the hands of humans earlier in the record. The band, all trans people, repurpose horror here to be a tool of empowerment, and a triumphant narrative for trans and non-binary people everywhere.

Over the Bowie-esque schoolyard romp of “Teachers,” framed as a conversational call-and-response between an authority figure and the young Queen, frontwoman Mira Glitterhound weaves a patchwork of questions and answers queer people are subject to receiving and giving: “Do you hear what all the children say? Why they won’t have you over to play?” Glitterhound spits back, “’Cause I would set them on fire!” From the Rocky Horror Picture Show theatrics of “Bigotry & Barbecue” to the Queen-styled choral intro of “Star,” the band create vivid, engaging places and stories across the record, set to delightful ‘70s rock and power pop.

Sweeping Exits borrow from the sounds and aesthetics of Alice Cooper and New York Dolls to reanimate shock rock, and imagine a world where queer vampires feast on the blood of bigots. Like all great works of horror, it reminds us that for many, the real world is horror, and this record is a welcome reprieve.

—Luke Ottenhof