With all the hoopla surrounding SG50, which celebrates all manners of shit that is peripherally linked to Singapore’s 50th birthday, it would only be right for me to jump on the bandwagon by spotlighting one of Singapore’s greatest musical exports that is still in existence today.
The Singapore English music scene (if it can be called one) is a relatively small one, and it is mostly financially unviable to pursue a full-time music career, although some remarkable ones have pulled it off, much to my respect. As with most music scenes around the world, there tend to be quite a bit of derivative acts in Singapore. However, one would be mistaken to think that Singaporean music acts are merely carbon copies of their American or British counterparts. One would also be oblivious to the esoteric charms of the Observatory.
Formed in 2001 after the demise of beloved folk-rock band Humpback Oak, The Observatory provided a broader palette for Leslie Low’s more avant garde tendencies (first explored in Humpback Oak’s SideASideB) as he collaborated with like-minded musicians Vivian Wang, Evan Tan, Dharma and Victor Low for 2004 debut, Time of Rebirth.
Unlike Humpback Oak’s earlier releases which still employed the obligatory roaring electric guitars every now and then, Time of Rebirth was largely a down-tempo affair, comprising largely of a collage of acoustic and electronic elements. The first track, How’s Life, was still reminiscent of SideASideB, but Killing Time, which featured otherworldly electronics and Vivian Wang’s detached yet alluring vocals, was a different kind of beast altogether. The teenage angst that characterised Humpback Oak’s repertoire was nowhere to be found, as it gave way to a new found sophistication in both instrumental arrangements and lyrical narratives. Waste of Life and This Sad Song were experimental soundscapes that put the band’s fascination with synths and electronic programming in full view.
Elsewhere in the album, a jazzy and lounge-like vibe prevailed. For instance, trumpets and what sounded like flamenco-styled guitars adorned a folk-rock song like Ask. It’s rare to hear these instruments outside of a ska or jazz album (as musicians, particularly local ones, tend not to be too adventurous). It’s fair to say that, even in a broad international context, The Observatory is one of the rare bands that defy easy categorization.
To be frank, I have not followed The Observatory’s recent releases, partly because the band had grown increasingly esoteric over the years, while I have, in my boring “new” role as a working adult, become increasingly infatuated with nostalgic sounds of yesteryear. A recent check with the band’s website shows that they are still actively touring and releasing new adventurous records. Even if I can’t relate to the new albums, I have to respect the spirit Leslie Low and company embodies – that of staying true to one’s art and not giving a shit about what other people think.