Friday, March 04, 2011

Gee, Bob!

For that, indeed, is how we are encouraged to pronounce GBOB, the Global Battle of the Bands, the 2010 Grand Final of which was held in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday (and I was there).

My partner-in-drink (and World's No. 1 AIS  fan) Ruby already put up an excellent post over on BeijingDaze a few days ago about how it all went down, so you should go and check that out if you haven't done so already (Badr put up a slew of posts of his own immediately afterwards, so it got bumped way down the page, and was rather too easy to overlook).  I'm now going to add a few additional photos and some brief impressions of my own.

First off, I was very pleasantly surprised by the standard of the music. I had been fearing something like a crappy high school band competition where most of the entrants are pretty dire and you're desperately hanging in there hoping there might be one or two gems amidst all the dross; but in fact, just about all the bands on this occasion were pretty impressive technically (which, I gather, hasn't really been the case in recent years). Second, I was, on the whole, very impressed by the organisation. Although there were inevitably a few hitches and technical breakdowns here and there (most galling of which was the unexplained delay in starting - or even opening the venue doors - which left us scuffing our heels outside in KL's stifling early evening humidity for 40 minutes), but on the whole the event ran amazingly smoothly, and finished pretty much bang on schedule. With 17 bands following each other in quick succession, that was a superb achievement by the sound technicians. Third - nice venue, too: good space, great sound, friendly staff, not too unreasonable prices (I know Ruby bitched about this in her post, but it worked out to 23 rmb for a small beer or 35 rmb for a whisky & coke; you'd pay about the same at any of Beijing's music bars; and KL is, on the whole, nearly twice as expensive as Beijing for most things - especially for bars - so this wasn't at all bad).

On the other hand.... it was not the easiest place in the world to find. Had sharp-eyed Ruby not spotted the poster below hiding away behind a row of palm trees, we might have been vainly cruising the strip with our amused Indian taxi driver for another half an hour.  I'd actually done an advance recce the week before (via the city's monorail: the line runs down the middle of this street for quite a way). The host nightclub was supposed to be in a shopping mall at No. 20, so I was looking out of the train window for names or numbers of buildings: "No. 38, No. 32.... oh, this must be the right side of the street... soon, soon.... oops... the 20 block appears to be one huge building site. That can't be right, can it? No, no, I'm sure I must have missed it somehow. I guess it's next to that building site."  Er, no - it was indeed a building site: the KL Live venue (and the quaint Japanese restaurant on the floor below [aside: KL Live had been advertised as being on the 1st floor, but it was actually on the 2nd or 3rd - depending on whether you follow the British or American convention about these things]) was the only part of the complex that had been completed - and it was very hard to find the way in (Malaysia isn't good on signage!), dodging behind the blue metal screens and the scaffolding.  I suspect this awkwardness of access and near invisibility must have inhibited the turnout rather (although ultimately the crowd was just about right: nicely buzzy, but not uncomfortably dense).  It also nicely cranked up Ruby's anxieties about getting there on time.....

While musical ability was mostly at a high level, musical variety was not. Rubes, much more down with [post-1970s] musical trends than me, claimed to discern suggestions of "alt rock" and "garage punk" and a few other things amongst the entrants, but for me.... two thirds of them sounded very much the same: not quite Metal, perhaps, but definitely at the very heavy end of rock, and all very, very generic. This kind of thing is great fun to play (and guarantees you a fanbase amongst the entrenched subculture), but it's very difficult to play really well; and it's almost impossible to establish a distinctive sound for yourself within such a well-worn genre.  By the end of the evening, I was feeling that I had perhaps just seen 10 of the best instantly forgettable bands in the world.

Amongst these identikit rockers, I liked Thai band Luminasion best. Apart from our own dear AIS, I thought they were the best musicians of the night, and their singer had a lot of presence. Their guitarist was especially impressive, a classic shredder (apparently he's won some title as Thailand's best).  Unfortunately, he had a problem with his lead for a lengthy spell in the middle of their set. His buddy covered for him very well on the guitar-piano (is that what it's called? a keyboard slung on a shoulder-strap, with a stubby handle on the left-hand end like a kind of abbreviated guitar neck, with a touch-sensitive pad on it which allows the player to produce bend and slide effects - I've never seen one before), but I wonder if this unfortunate hiccup cost them a place amongst the prize-winners. It shouldn't have: I can't see how on earth they weren't named amongst the top 3 or 4, at least. Being on first may have worked against them a bit as well; but the judging was, erm, eccentric, to say the least (more on that at the end).

Second up were Aussie youngsters, The Tillegra Damned. I'm afraid I didn't manage to get any decent pictures of them.  They were a dauntingly youthful crew, with bags of energy; and also the least experienced band in the competition, having only played together in public for the first time at their local GBOB heat last summer (I had thought the ethos of this competition was supposed to be to foster 'new' bands - but there doesn't seem to be anything in the rules about this [I would have expected perhaps a requirement that their first public performance should have been not more than 2 years before the closing date for entries], but some of the contestants have been knocking around for years!). Their lead singer was very athletic, but more of a yeller than a singer. And their only notable gimmick was adding a classically trained keyboardist to the mix - but this just didn't gel for me: his little introductory bits didn't seem at all integrated with the rest of the songs (although there may have been a sound issue here; I'm assured he was playing - and doing some backing vocals - almost throughout, but you just couldn't hear him). Ruby loved their demos she'd heard, but she's an honorary Aussie; I'm afraid their live show didn't really do anything for me.

Third on the bill were Beijing's finest, The Amazing Insurance Salesmen.  They put on a great show (watch the official video of one half of it here), but I always feared this was not really their sort of competition.  In terms of pure musicianship, they were clearly in a different class to almost everyone else, but... they're just not really a very 'commercial' sort of band: a bit too thinky, rather than the sort of barnstorming rock-the-crowd outfit that a 'battle of the bands' contest tends to favour.  I think it may have been a tactical error to go with a conventional set choice of doing two short songs - just like everyone else; if they'd just soloed their arses off for 8 minutes (which they typically do in a full set, closing their performance with an extended improvisation on Duke Ellington's Caravan), the difference in class would have been more apparent - even if they still weren't the kind of thing the judges were looking for on the night.  I also think their compact line-up was a bit of a problem for them.  The stage was huge - one of the biggest I've ever seen outside of a stadium gig.  Almost every other band had at least 5 or 6 members (one - I can't remember which it was now - had three guitarists).  It was almost impossible for a trio to fill that space.  Never mind - it was great to see the lads play overseas for the first time; and, with a bit of luck, this may pave the way for one or two tours for them later this year.  (And I gather they received a lot of flattering commendations from the other musicians taking part, which should more than compensate for any unfortunate ego-deflation the judges inflicted on them.)

Ruby had got hold of a Chinese flag to drape over the safety fence at the front...

Next on were ExNN (Ex Nihilo Nihil - a bit of Latin for you!) from Moldova, a bit more mellow and folky than anything else on offer that night, and distinguished by their very sexy frontwoman Gala in a stunning gypsy outfit (Malaysian boys behind me were yelling "We LOVE you!!" within seconds of her taking the stage).  Unfortunately, their music left very little impression.  I fear they may again have been the victim of set-up problems: from the the post-gig interview (and their demos, too, I gather) it would seem she has a really gorgeous voice, but it just wasn't coming across very powerfully during this set.

Romania's White Walls were more generic rockers.  Their singer was much better than most, but he didn't have a very commanding stage presence (most of the time he just walked round and round in tight little circles - which soon got kind of irritating). The judges - astoundingly - placed them amongst the runners-up. They wouldn't have made my Top 10.

Indonesian band Strangers just didn't look the part: they all turned up wearing pullovers and cardigans!  I hope it's not just that that turned me against them, but I felt their performance was kind of insipid as well.

Belgian hard-rockers Experienced (and they are: they've been together 8 years or something) were much livelier. I'm told they overran their allotted 8 minutes, and may have been severely penalised for that (although I didn't notice: it didn't feel as if they'd played significantly longer than anyone else). They also swore quite a lot (all the performers had been asked not to swear, nor to reveal too much naked flesh or show off their tats excessively, in deference to the prudish sensibilities of the predominantly Muslim host nation), and there was a rumour that marks might be deducted for this as well (but if that's so, something very funny was going on with the judging standards: last band up, Shenaniganz from Germany, swore almost continuously and were still placed 3rd). Their second number, the catchy singalong Bad Girls Burn In Hell (I can just imagine Kiss doing this one!), really got the crowd on their side; and - although there wasn't anything very distinctive about them - I can't understand how they didn't make the top 4 or 5.  Something going wrong around here...

And then.... well, then, we had Nope from Morocco, who were (along with Tillegra Damned and Shenaniganz) the babies of the competition, barely out of their teens. They were also the least categorisable act of this - or any other - night.  They had two vocalists: one a very slight and effeminate figure carrying a bullwhip and shrouded in a Red Riding Hood cowl; the other very buff yet still strangely feminine, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, a man-skirt... and a single ice-hockey glove, with which he enacted a series of cat-like stretching and clawing gestures. The pair, both wearing harlequin masks, put on an elaborate pantomime of... something-or-other (fraught with sexual tension, but no clear narrative emerged).... while spitting out ultra-high-speed vocals in a sort of rap style (I couldn't even make out the language: a mixture of French and Arabic, with maybe just a little bit of English thrown in, I suspect).  It was strange, creepy, but utterly mesmerising.  They were a tight band, too, and their song structure and musical style was quite unique. They were big favourites with most of the crowd, and would have been in my top 2 or 3; even the judges - in perhaps their one populist gesture of the night - gave them a nod as fifth runners-up. I believe one of the criteria - perhaps the overriding one - was something like "potential to gain international recognition"; and these lads, fantastic though their live show is, are probably never going to find a mainstream audience outside of North Africa (and perhaps not even there).

There had been a bit of buzz about The River Raid from Brazil. I'd been hoping they might marry some rock'n'roll energy with the luscious rhythms of their native samba, channel a little Carlos Santana for us... but no, they were just another cookie-cutter hard rock band. And after the acid-trip vaudeville of Nope, they fell completely flat.

The UK's Scarletta were the nul points entry of the night: a fairly ho-hum band fronted by a Lady Ga-Ga wannabe with a screechy voice and a ridiculous Alice-In-Wonderland costume (and wearing teetering platform shoes which rendered her almost utterly immobile). I decided to spare my camera battery - and my eardrums - for a few minutes.

Sonsteek from South Africa seemed to generate a very warm response from the crowd (though perhaps they were just grateful that Scarletta was finished).  They had three USPs: they had a pair of [ginger!] identical twins on guitar (one of whom was very Angus Young in his mannerisms, though not, alas, in his sound); they sang in Afrikaans (ever heard that before? me neither); and they had a lead singer who looked as if he worked in an IT department or a comic book store. Apart from that... the cookie-cutter again. The judges placed them amongst the runners-up; I couldn't help thinking that this was tokenism ("Oh, only one entry from Africa? We'd better give them something, to encourage more interest from that continent next year. And they didn't sing in English - how brave!"  Yes, yes, quite so; just not a very interesting band.).

The Malaysian champions Bombers naturally got a huge lift from the home crowd, but.... for me, they didn't do anything with that. They whipped the excitement to a peak while the previous band Sonsteek were still doing their post-gig interview at the side of the stage (not the best manners!), and it seemed to ebb away a little during the set itself. I felt that, as with AIS, they had a little bit of a problem filling the stage; although there were quite a few of them, they were tiny guys (well, apart from their elephantine drummer) and they seemed a bit lost in the space. They were a bit poppier than most of the other acts, which didn't endear them to me. And many people seemed to think the lead singer's brief breakdancing interlude was the highlight of the show.... which didn't endear them to me. Next!

Well, I didn't manage to get a picture of Magua from the Ukraine. They were one of the few bands to have a really distinctive approach and sound, but it didn't work for me. The use of a screeching harmonica seemed promising, but their tune-up sounded better than the set itself - and their songs seemed to lurch schizophrenically between psychedelic blues rock and throbbing metal... without ever really going anywhere.

I joked the other week that Voodoo Vanity from Norway were probably going to be corpulent and whiskery dirge metal rockers (just because every other band I've ever seen from Norway has been....), but in fact they were all young, slim, and clean-shaven.... and disturbingly effeminate, with their stage make-up transporting us back to the early '70s heyday of glam rock. A tight band, and the most outright fun of the night: it was mystifying that they didn't make it into the judges' top 5 or 6.

The bizarrely named Salvador from Russia (or was it vice versa?? Either way, no explanation was offered...) were on next. Maybe I was getting a little weary by this point - but they just seemed like yet another run-of-the-mill heavy rock band being angry about something I couldn't understand; their only point of interest was the fact that their frontman played an amplified acoustic guitar; I'm afraid they lost my attention early on. The judges, of course, rated them top runners-up!

At this point, my camera battery gave out on me.  The last two bands were Dubtonic Kru from Jamaica and the (much derided for their name) Shenaniganz from Germany.  The Dubtonics had an excellent drummer, but otherwise seemed like the kind of house band that you might find at any decent club or bar in Montego Bay. Neither of their singers impressed that strongly, and their bongo player was... well, I can play the bongos better than that (it would appear that, like all good rasta men, they had been partaking heavily of the sacrament before they went on). Still, it was nice to get back to the 'roots' sound of the 1970s rather than all this hip-hop and dance music flavoured garbage we've had to endure since. And it made for a mellow round-out to an evening of mostly fairly indistinguishable hard rock.

Shenaniganz, on last, were a very pleasant surprise - yes, more cookie-cutter hard rock, but one of the better exponents of the style we heard that night; and at least they weren't hip-hoppers or a boy band, as their name had threatened they might be. They were, however, likely lady-pleasers: good-looking, and very, very young - only just into their twenties. A good, tight unit, though; they've been playing together since they were in high school 5 or 6 years ago. Boy, did they tear up that memo about the no swearing! They were scattering the f-bombs around freely throughout their 8 minutes on stage, including one in the title - and chorus - of their second song. One might have expected that to count against them.

But no, the judges made them second runners-up.  And the I've-heard-better-reggae-bands-than-that-busking-on-Clapham-Common Dubtonic Kru were the winners. Well, good luck to them. They seem like a nice bunch of fellas, and they can play a bit... and I suppose reggae is due for a bit of a comeback in the mainstream, after a decade of dormancy (I gather it is suddenly becoming very popular again in America lately; so perhaps the judges were shrewdly calculating that they had the best commercial potential in the current climate). But really - WTF?? That announcement was met with stupefied silence by the audience; I don't think many people there would have placed them in the top 10, let alone the top 5. You can't help but feel that - whether or not the organisers are openly conniving at this - strategic factors have some influence on the decision-making: the GBOB brand would like to establish more of a presence in the Americas and Eastern Europe... so, we get awards for Russia, Romania, and Jamaica. Then again, maybe it was just fatigue: the judges - all Scandinavian, all in their 50s or 60s - looked catatonic with boredom throughout most of the show.... and then awarded the top 3 places to the last three bands to go on. Hmm, you think maybe they just couldn't remember any further back??

Never mind. Apart from the dodgy judging, and the lack of deserved recognition for AIS and a few others, it was a very entertaining night. I might even get tempted to head out to Casablanca for next year's Final....

[More photos of this event here and here.]


Anonymous said...

The guitar-piano thing is called a Keytar. Thought they stopped making them in the 80's. Apparently Lady GaGa uses them a lot. Keytar makers rejoice!

Gary said...

You got some great photos here. Did they let you up front with the pros?

Too bad your guys didn't win.

No sign of a reggae revival round my way yet.

Froog said...

Ah, yes, a Keytar! Thanks, HF.

No, Gary, I didn't get to mingle with the proper photographers right at the front of the stage (although I probably could have done if I'd been a bit pushier; there wasn't a lot in the way of security). I was just using a Casio happy-snapper, a complete piece of crap: no conventional viewfinder (only the LCD screen on the camera back), very little control over virtual aperture etc., very erratic auto-focus, no 'click' to let you know when the photo has actually been taken - and the damn thing shuts down for 5 or 10 seconds every time you take a picture. Maddening. At least 70 or 80% of the shots I tried to take were a blurry mess. I amazed I got anything usable out of the effort at all.

Froog said...

Ruby tells me Norwegian rockers Voodoo Vanity have linked to this post on their Facebook page.

Welcome, Voodoo Vanity fans (and band members!) - do please leave a comment.

I would have placed VV 2nd in this competition; not quite as technically impressive as Luminasion, I didn't think, but edging out Nope and AIS on grounds of greater mainstream accessibility.

Experienced were the best of the rest. And I liked that Magua and ExNN were offering something different, a unique sound, but their performances didn't quite seem to come off. I guess Shenaniganz is the only one of the judges' picks that I might have named amongst the Top 6 (although I still struggle to get over their terrible name!).

Anonymous said...

Are you guys chinese?How come you speak english so perfectly well??? :) Or u're not?

Froog said...

Who are you, Anon? And why are you so curious? And who do you mean by "you guys"?

No, I'm not Chinese. (See how well I write Chinese - it's a dead giveaway!)

The Beijing band in this competition AIS are an interesting international mix. Mao Mao the drummer is Chinese, but Maikel the bassist is Dutch, and Jean-Sebastien the guitarist is French (although the Europeans speak pretty good Chinese; Jean-Seb's what we call a 'lifer' - been here 10 years or more, probably going to stay forever.... even sings and writes songs in Chinese sometimes).

You should check out the video of theirs I put in the link - awesome stuff!