Orient Express


The NME, or New Musical Express as it once was, announced in August that it is expanding into Asia. The publication was sold to new Hong Kong/Singaporean owners last year so it’s no surprise that they would look to this market. Their owners said:

“The world is increasingly looking at Asia, seeing the success of K-Pop, and wondering what’s beyond just Korea, because that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer musically across the region.”

Turns out there’s a whole world, or continent at least, more music out there. Which shouldn’t really be a surprise considering more than half the world’s youth live in Asia. It’s part of the world that is massively musically under represented in terms of what we listen to here. We’ve certainly covered very few Asian artists here on Picky Bastards. Rina Sawayama and Yukimi from Little Dragon are about as close as it gets. And I’m not talking traditional music here with unusual instruments, tones and scales; I’m talking music styled on familiar western pop, rock, rap and electronica. Plenty of the music out there is sung in the English language, and with streaming services at our fingertips there’s little barrier beyond a lack of awareness in the way of any Western audience accessing it.

My own limited experience is one surprisingly smoky night (in smoke-free Japan anyway) at Namba Bears, a tiny, dark basement club in Osaka with a BYO drinks policy. To call the line-up eclectic would be putting it mildly. The highlight of the night was the mayonnaise obsessed rock trio who performed like they were in front of a thousands-strong festival crowd before repeatedly screaming “MA-YO-NEZ” and guzzling bottles of the stuff. This is no way indicative of the music I’m about to share with you.

So it’s time for us to do more than scratch the surface. We’ve searched every corner of…the internet to listen to some of these acts from the other side of the world. It’s unlikely they’re going to be the next ‘Gangnam Style’ (who’d want to be?) but it’s the perfect excuse to expand our musical world at a time when our own worlds are more limited than ever. Sure you’ve heard of K-pop, maybe even J-pop, but have you heard of Indonesian folk, Malaysian metal, Singaporean shoegaze or Mandopop?

So, in the absence of any actual travel budget, come on an online journey of discovery with the Picky Bastards in search of these new sounds. It can’t be weirder than the mayonnaise night, can it?

Name: Weird Genius
Country: Indonesia
Genre: EDM
Top track: Lathi

The opening chord sequence threw me off straight away as I thought I was going to hear Muse’s ‘New Born’. And this is track is overblown in similar way to much of Muse’s later output. As far as the rest of it goes, it’s pretty standard pop/EDM fare, with a sprinkling of some south east Asian sounds. It’s not subtle and is crying out for some more light and shade.

Name: Stars and Rabbit
Country: Indonesia
Genre: Folk
Top track: Man Upon The Hill

If you heard this without knowing what it was and I asked you where you thought they were from, you’d far more likely guess Iceland than Indonesia. This song is quite beautiful and pretty catchy too. Although it’s not entirely my cup of tea, I can definitely imagine this getting an audience over here. They’ve even played a few dates in the UK in the past.

Name: .gif
Country: Singapore
Genre: Indie-electronic
Top track: Godspeed

Turns out this duo have played in the UK in the past too. This music is already happening right in front of our faces, and we’re missing it. ‘Godspeed’ has got something Portisheady about it, but with a more dreamy sound. I like it. I like it a lot.

Name: NIKI
Country: Indonesia
Genre: Pop/RnB
Top track: lowkey

Her online bio uses the quote “the internet’s favourite R&B princess”. That might be stretching it a bit, but with streams into the tens of millions, NIKI is by far the most listened to artist so far. And with her shiny and appealing American sound you can see why. She’s one to take on the charts.

Name: Itchyworms
Country: Philippines
Genre: Pop rock
Top track: Beer

With a title like ‘Beer’ I thought this would be a raucous party anthem. Instead we get an insipid mid-tempo rock ballad. They bring out the distorted guitars in the middle for a bit, but it’s pretty cheesy overall. Avoid.

Name: Astreal
Country: Singapore
Genre: Indie/shoegaze
Top track: Wallflower

This is decent, if a little long. Breathy vocals and a combination of delicate picked and heavy strummed guitar go to create something wistful and elegant. To some, it may sound dated, but for me I’ll go with classic.

Name: Jay Chou
Country: Taiwan
Genre: Mandopop
Top track: Love Confession

Oh god this is dreadful. It’s like the whole late 90s boyband thing never happened. You can almost hear the bit where the chorus comes in and he stands up off the stool. I imagine this is the sort of thing that would win Taiwanese X Factor.

Name: Voice of Baceprot
Country: Indonesia
Genre: Rock/metal
Top track: School Revolution

All girl. Hijab wearing. They’re successfully breaking down any preconceptions of what a metal band looks like and what girls like them “should” be seen to be doing. Not normally the sort of thing I’d listen to at all, but this is good fun. I don’t know what they’re singing about, but they look like they mean it.

Name: KoFLow
Country: Singapore
Genre: Hip-hop
Top track: Dreamers

DJ KoFlow has the whole history of hip-hop to dig through and sample from. With hints of old skool and hints of Puffy’s shiny suits era at the same time, this turntablist is mixing things that shouldn’t really go together. However he just about gets away with it. If you could imagine liking a less cerebral DJ Shadow then this is for you. It’s good fun.

Name: OJLaw
Country: Malaysia
Genre: Indie singer-songwriter
Top track: Yoñlu

OJ was born in London and raised in Kuala Lumpur. Musically, it’s clear he’s remained close to his British roots. Plenty of jangly guitar and introspective lyrics. If you can remember the soundtrack to Channel 4 comedy-drama ‘Teachers’, then you’ll know this could fit right in with it.

Country: Malaysia
Genre: Electronic/hip-hop
Top track: Streetkwldg

New album Nuclear Powered Apes (terrible title I know) pulls in so many different directions, it’s hard to pin down YAHNA’s style. This track isn’t really indicative of the rest of album, but it’s the best point for jumping into his world of beats, bleeps, samples and soulful vocals.

Name: Pisitakun
Country: Thailand
Genre: BonkersGlitchRave with a dose of politics
Top track: ArArMyMy

I was tempted to say this was Thailand’s answer to 100 gecs, but that would be far too harsh. It’s not an easy listen though. It sounds like something you’d hear inside an art gallery, in an installation or soundtracking one of those short films nobody ever sits all the way through. Intense and challenging.

That’s all for now. I’ve attempted to cover as many styles and countries as I can and I hope you’ve found something new to love. We’ll see if the movement of journalism from west to east can be followed by any of these artists moving in the opposite direction and making it big over here. I certainly hope so, and I’ll be checking the names with interest whenever we get to go back to places like Namba Bears again. 

Words by James Spearing

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