The Brave Old World of New Music

Alex Almario

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Pop music has long been known to chase its own tail. As the Internet shrinks this referential loop, what flecks of new music are spinning out of it?

Out of The Floodways and Into Your Homes
By Identikit

Archaic
By Child/ren of the Pilgrimage

 

In his book The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem makes a case for the importance of unoriginality. Influence, he argues, is an inescapable element of art that should be acknowledged and embraced rather than denied and vilified in the name of post-modernism and so-called innovation. “Does our appetite for creative vitality require the violence and exasperation of another avant-garde, with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives?” he writes. “Or might we be better off ratifying the ecstasy of influence—and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists?”

The question of originality has become more relevant now in popular music—perhaps more than ever—as it seems to have reached a point where “new” is no longer an attainable ideal. Ever since the 21st century term “post-rock” became obsolete during the second decade, the pop music landscape has been suffused with surrender, with every punk “revival” and synth-pop “re-invention” serving as a tacit admission that everything has already been done before and that innovation is now limited to the ways in which new patterns can be weaved from old sounds.

But every form of pop music is a pastiche. The truth is that genres have been procreating since the invention of the blues, which is the great grandfather of all popular music. The alleged absence of originality in today’s music is really a non-existent problem—there really hasn’t been an original genre since blues, which is in itself a bastardization of cotton-farm chants by African-American slaves of the 19th century. The notion that popular music has to be constantly new and revolutionary is an illusion, for newness isn’t an intrinsic characteristic of art; it’s only a circumstantial characteristic of any new art, which pop music relatively is.

The real problem of today’s music is that it exists on the Internet— a realm that is obsessed with the present. And like a consciousness that only lives in the “now”, this new realm has a limited perspective (if Twitter existed in the late 60s, it would’ve constantly reminded us how reggae is just a cheap form of rhythm and blues).

The effects of influence on today’s music are made more apparent by the heightened awareness created by the Internet, where an entire history of an art form is readily available for study, discovery, and consumption. One cannot listen to Palma Violets without hearing a little of The Clash or listen to Beach House without hearing a lot of Cocteau Twins. Everyone, it seems—artists and listeners alike—are now operating under the persistent consciousness of influence.

The Philippine indie music scene—currently the most active sector of the country’s recording industry—is largely a product of this new hyper-consciousness, as budding Pinoy musicians began catching up with their Western counterparts with the aid of the Internet revolution in music.  Once boxed in the four corners of nu metal, pop-punk, emo, and twee pop, the scene is now infused with current Western trends like EDM, chillwave, garage punk, and even folk-indie. The sudden accessibility of music releases, news, and commentary made musical trends less regional and more digital. Landmarks like Brooklyn, Manchester, and Stockholm are now less insular than ever before as Pitchfork, YouTube, and Twitter map out a new music geography comprised of hyperlinks and streaming media. Now that much of the new Pinoy indie resides on this same digital continent—with more and more artists surfacing via self-release music services such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud; and even some being discovered by foreign labels—the issue of Western influence becomes moot.

Original Pinoy Music, no matter how one defines “original,” is invariably an interpretation of Western music. Any artist working within the idiom of pop music is inevitably carrying on an American tradition, popularized by the British. As Pinoy indie influences grow increasingly sophisticated and diverse, OPM continues to evolve at an accelerated rate.

Two of the best Pinoy indie releases today—Out of The Floodways and Into Your Homes by Identikit andArchaic by Child/ren of the Pilgrimage—are making waves on the Internet, if not in the tiny enclaves of Saguijo, Route 196, B-Side, and other music clubs around the country. They receive very little to no radio airplay, but have quickly become the darlings of local music websites and blogs, the new chroniclers of a music industry in flux. They are worth examining, not only as avatars of a music revolution, but also as divergent glimpses of the ways in which Western influences are redefining the “O” in OPM.

Detecting influence is a Rorschach blot test: People are only capable of hearing what they know and what they want to hear, regardless of what the artist’s actual inspirations and intentions are. Some artists, however, make no bones about their influences and even spell them out clearly on their Facebook page. Identikit is one of these bands.

Citing a wide spectrum of influences—synth-pop, post-punk, shoegaze; bands like Metric, Broken Social Scene, and Death Cab for Cutie—the group delivers a debut album that is as eclectic as its field of reference.Out of the Floodways and Into Your Homes is a product of its time—a stylistic collage that effectively simulates what it’s like to listen to music in the digital age—with genre-promiscuity, rendered taboo during analog times, made normative and almost banal by the sheer infinity of the world’s music database.

The album’s explosive start indeed recalls Broken Social Scene with unabashed and glorious aplomb. The seething anxiety of “Weird Just Friends” is channeled by “Skeptics,” converting the energy into giant, focused riffs before being wrapped around the warmth of “Me and My Japanese Bike,” a song that asserts the band’s confidence three tracks in. Joe de Jesus’s guitar washes over Sandy Buladaco’s wispy voice like autumnal melancholy, that when it fails to soar with the reckless joy of “Run away with you / Lose my safety net” it happily drowns itself back into the deluge. The album takes a quick detour with “Celebrations,” where the band’s electronic flourishes start to creep in before it freezes over, only to be unleashed in full dubstep gaudiness with “Tweakend in the City,” perhaps for maximum jarring effect.

Yet, the album makes its most welcome turn with “Peach.” It teases the ear with a chillwave intro before it launches into a beautifully layered pop confection that defies easy labeling. With its bossa nova beat, indie-pop soul, synth-pop trimmings, and shoegazer bridge, “Peach” is not only a fusion of everything that Identikit tries to sound like—it is, more importantly, an amalgam of the album’s best parts: the wistfulness, the breezy sureness, and the perfect balance of warmth and cool.

The last three songs, after the languid dream pop of “Dysfunctional,” pulls the album back towards the mean, with the almost Kamikazee-like “Tiny Fractures” and the hook-y instrumental “Vast Open Spaces.” It does end with the modestly satisfying “Hello, Mr. Brown,” where all the loose sounds of the album seem to just fall into place, somehow, inevitably, like an accident that grows more comfortable as the shock subsides. “You don’t know how beautiful you are, do you?” Buladaco sings in the aftermath.

Child/ren of the Pilgrimage’s Archaic, on the other hand, sounds like a product of influence processed subconsciously, resulting in a trance-like euphoria whose obliviousness permeates even the extremely learned and overly conscious observer. One can easily find traces of Red House Painters, with its haunted guitar jangle (most evident in the coda of “On All Four Corners”) and of Fleet Foxes, with its pleasantly jarring shifts within songs that sound like segues to other tracks. Yet, these obvious influences somehow end up being sublimated by the album’s overall assuredness. While the wild swings of Out of the Floodways and Into Your Homes make each track distinct, the songs in Archaic seem to bleed into one rich, murky swamp—the thick consistency adhering to every sonic ripple. The effect is more akin to a symphony—each track either representing a movement or, in the case of tracks such as “Young Is Aging” and “Swan of None/Our Time Has Come,” a series of movements. Through repeated listening, the influences start to dissolve in the lush complexity of it all, one that is only achieved through a musical mind that has given up all consciousness.

The mind is that of Jep Cruz, who writes, arranges, and sings all of the songs in Archaic. His triptych touch feels like a singular effort: His incantatory vocals, byzantine lyrics, and enchanting sound textures intertwine into one another, each thread fitting perfectly into the tapestry. Cruz, who was once a member of indie bands Plane Divides the Sky and Narda, has bolted far away from their shadows to form his own band, his own sound, and his own world divorced from a music scene that has become increasingly referential.

In Archaic, one can easily hear the shoegaze atmospherics minus the fuzz or recall a myriad influences, from Belle and Sebastian to This Mortal Coil, yet all the name-checking eventually crumbles into unintelligible dust. The enchanting interplay between the baroque and the ethereal becomes so hypnotic that when they meld in songs like “Duophonic” and “Changes,” an otherworldly beauty emerges, escaping any available musical shorthand. In fact, Archaic somewhat reinforces that legendary “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” aphorism—any attempt at articulating the music’s brilliance falls short. Child/ren of Pilgrimage’s debut album is a highly influenced work that devours its influences and kills its fathers, never giving up their ghosts.

OPM’s copycat reputation is almost as old as the industry itself. From The Juan Dela Cruz Band’s acid rock, to VST’s disco, to Kamikazee’s pop-punk, OPM has largely been an invisible mirror image of the West, unable to carve an identity in any bicoastal genre, the way Japan has with acid jazz and alternative music, or South Korea with dance pop. But thanks to the Internet, the future, for the first time, looks limitless. We have already seen local indie acts like Outerhope and Eyedress gain Western recognition.  We may yet to see a distant future when the Internet finally ages and forgets how closely everything is tied together and start to view its infinitesimal knowledge more clearly from afar. In that future, today’s music may seem more original and innovative. And maybe, when we start seeing the bigger picture, some of those tiny strokes may actually be made of Pinoy sounds.

For now, with the digital age still in its infancy, the consciousness of pop music still resembles an album like Identikit’s Out of the Floodways and Into Your Homes—the references still very much visible and the awareness still palpable. This makes an album like Child/ren of the Pilgrimage’s Archaic all the more precious—its distilled sounds and delirious amnesia may be a glimpse of pop music’s future.