Tuesday, June 26, 2007
HUMPBACK OAK- Ghostfather CD(Springroll Creative Entertainment 1997)
The curtain fell and the pervading darkness enveloped the stage, blurred the vision and poisoned the mind. Everything became darker, bleaker and sadder it’s almost overkill. I predicted this introspective fold into the deeper recesses of the human soul wrecked by strings of events tied to its existence when Humpback Oak announced its second offering “Ghostfather”. I expected this as a natural progression to the stronger call for catharsis, he Leslie Low the troubadour (note how much it spells like trouble) would be too eager to show. This thin poet of existentialism somehow managed to turn this dramatic experience into a tragic intimacy. He is an interesting character study because the sheer complexity of his poetry grips your consciousness with huge dosage of empathy before one realizes that he is a master craftsman of tragedy. The fervent listeners were offered a glimpse of the tumultuous currents in the poet’s mind and given a boat to sail the meditation. Rest assured that this is not an easy ride, but when you sail its transient transit you will draw up the completion of life, its futility and its essence, like young Siddhartha on pilgrimage, or Jesus Christ on trials. Incidentally the demise of Leslie’s late father influenced this work, which all the more makes it more personal and depressing. Get ready your prozac and proceed.
The second album is iconoclastic, kafka-esque and indulgent. Humpback Oak probably did not expect this to be an accessible work in the tradition of “Pain-stained Morning” either. And they probably also understood that creating really moody pieces of work is their second nature. This is art, and this is not instantaneously attractive unless you have the right faculty to fathom the beauty in its essence. The caustic sound of the album reminds me of the murky depths with layers to be explored. This adventure in soundscaping is rather not common as it involves creating thickly enveloping ambience that still bears clarity when the musical notes are played at lower, heavier registers. Humpback Oak was heavily influenced by Red House Painters and it shows on this album with its droning folk-inspired guitars strumming in hypnotic repetition. The long brooding passages unfold myriad of emotive surge that ripples across its phlegmatic flow.
When “Scared Scarred” began, one can sense the eventual loss of innocence impending. While the debut album still holds some bits of redemption, here it is a barren land of the futile. The vocalisation sounds resigned as he whispers the one last torch song to his “beautiful blistering blind find”. Note the way of the lyrical play, this one is a poetry for a very forlorn longing, jaded and gentle. Musically it traverses the lost art of sensitive singer songwriter folk of the enigmatic Nick Drake and more recently the equally tragic Elliott Smith.
Religion has a prevalent presence between the debut album and this. The expulsion of an old “new reason, new freedom” leads to the final nihilism painted in “Christ In Black” for faith tested failed right at the doorstep of Leslie. As much as he questioned, he had to reach the conclusion that the silence is imminent. Swam steeped in the black currents he reached for “Balm”, a respite for his long meditations as he explained how to “take a break, a recreation of my depression and devotion”. It does not take a Freudian expert to see the desperation of this poet. “Home” is an indication of the subtle political inclination that blossomed on their third album “SideASideB”. Here the vocalist questions the value of his existence right at home here. The album of course has its lighter notes with “If I Go Wrong” and “Stressed Out”, both songs which came to terms with the absurdity of it all, dancing about architecture with its tongue-in-cheek sartire of miserable living, like a lazy shrug of defiance.
“I am a Jug” is a passage into psychedelia, tripped out in the same blood streaming through Jefferson Airplane's “White Rabbit”. Here the trip makes use of metaphorical symbolism with a fixation on the morphing of objects before coming to the conclusion that “I am a Drug”, a wordplay of the title. Incidentally, Jug is also the same name of Leslie Low's solo project band after he left Twang Bar Kings, prior to joining Humpback Oak. “If I Am Weak” plays the imagery of altruistic anti-hero, before the tyranny of the weak turns wicked on “Cursed”. Funny enough, “Bridge” is also another track which sees more of the altruistic anti-hero here, this time in a selfless yet helpless yearning to fix right the dire and bleak world we're living in.
The highlight here “Ghostfather”, the title track is the root of this bleak creation, the very same ghost that haunted and tortured this poet into such doom and gloom. The song is interpreted as an anguished eulogy to Leslie's late father, yet you can feel an immense regret, loss and sorrow welling up in his trembling vocals. The strain, the confusion one can also feel and smell and what with the unsettling “I live with my mother, I live with my ghostfather” line. This is pure genius. “Drop of Soul” could very well be the soundtrack to the real 12 Storeys, playing the predicament of unfortunate Singaporean tragedies that happen on daily basis as the cogs of society turns in cold precession. In the song, the vocalist plays the narrator to the dead suicide victim, saying “there's not a drop of soul left in there.” The twist to this tragicomedy is that the narrator is none other than the victim, his ghost staring helplessly at the broken body of what once used to be. From a death in HDB setting, comes a metaphorical death in the sea with “Oh The Load Heavy Don't Float”. This is rather the last stage of innocence lost as finally the last figment of memories faded off, washed into the infinitude of darkness as all is gone away. “Pain” closes off the album as an epilogue to the philosophy of it all. One finds wisdom in “pain is a void that life borrows”, which pretty much summarizes the whole experience of this dark journey.
From the lengthy reviews you could assume that “Ghostfather” is an exceptionally deep, profound and masterful work. While I was initially disappointed at the fact that this is not “Pain-stained Morning part II”, over time this CD has become one of the most spinned album on my stereos. And undoubtedly this is one of the most important album in the history of Singapore music.
--sojourner at 9:29 AM