Friday, September 30, 2011

Obscura, Toxic Holocaust & Nafrat @The Substation, Singapore 9-27-2011

...in which I renew my efforts to get more involved with the South East Asian metal scene.

The last time I was living here (from 2003-2008), the scene was starting to pick up steam; more and more foreign bands were playing in the region, and there were regular gigs at the Malaysian Chinese Association Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur. Not really sure what the state of the scene is like now, but once I settle into a groove I'll go out and explore a little. Hopefully there will be some great bands to discover amidst the 2nd tier copycats that were inexplicably popular.

My metal friends from the Philippines Ian Cuevas and Isa Pilapil had told me months prior to me returning to the region that Obscura and Toxic Holocaust were going to be playing Singapore shortly after my arrival. Knowing that it would probably be the only death metal show I'd see for months (if not years), I resolved myself to take the trip down to hang out with Ian and Isa, even if I wasn't exactly a huge fan of those bands.

Day of the Show, I took a bus down from Kuala Lumpur (it's about the same distance as travelling from Boston to NY) and booked a bunk at a backpacker's inn called "The Prince of Wales," one of the bars/backpacker dormitories that are so popular here. It's a pretty savvy business model - give young tourists a room to sleep, and then get em drunk. And if they're too hungover the next morning to catch their bus or connecting flight, well, no worries - they can always pay for an extra night (and presumably, more booze). I personally don't drink and don't particularly enjoy the company of drunks, but I did like the location (right at the waterfront at Clarke Quay) and the price was ridiculously low.

But when I got to the Prince of Wales, I was turned away by the (white) owner for not being "a real backpacker" since I was Malaysian. Really? Being from Malaysia makes me not a real backpacker? The proprietor was keen to send me on my way ASAP, telling me that I hadn't paid any money, so I could leave; when I pointed out that I paid a deposit online, he refunded it to me...in change. Asshole. I wonder if I had said I was American whether it would have been a different story. I ended up checking into another hostel 5 minutes away, and took a quick nap before the show, dreaming of arson.

Finding the Substation was a little bit of an adventure, as the street it's located on (Armenian Street) is called something else for a block and a half, until you actually get to the club. Luckily, by haranguing various local passerbys on the way from the station (hats off to Singaporean politeness) I was able to get to the club and meet up with my friends Ian and Isa. I used to hang out with them and talk metal every time I visited Manila, but hadn't seen them since I started grad school in 2008. Plus, I hadn't been to a show with those two since I saw them play with their band Demiurge in Manila back in 2004; that was the only metal show I'd seen in South East Asia at the time (and even at the time I write this, I can count all the shows I've been to here on one hand).

Anticipation was high, and it was up to Singapore's own Nafrat to both open up the show and represent the local scene, though technical difficulties with one of their guitarists stymied them for almost 5 minutes. Their singer didn't seem to know quite to handle it, attempting to banter with the crowd in his Cookie Monster persona before jumping up and down as if to overcome their sound problems through sheer enthusiasm (he get points for rocking the leather pants through the Singaporean humidity, but I don't envy whoever gives him a ride home). When Nafrat eventually launch into their first song, it sounds like each of their band members is playing a different song; this, alas, is their style, a mishmash of tech, grind, and prog that sounds like Human Remains and Cephalic Carnage battling it out; indeed, for most of their set, Nafrat sound like the kind of spazzcore that you'd find on a Relapse comp (before Relapse started signing every stoner with an amp in Atlanta, GA).

"Is anyone a fan of Decapitated in the house?" their singer asks, introducing a cover of 'Spheres of Madness' before anyone has a chance to reply (insert Mitch Hedberg joke here). Decapitated started off in the shadow of bigger bands before eventually finding their voice. Nafrat will likewise have to find theirs if they want to break out of the local scene.


It feels weird to travel 5 hours and pay almost $60 to see Toxic Holocaust when I used to be able to walk down the street and pay $10 to see them play in my old neighborhood of Greenpoint; in fact, I actually got to see them play for free in the Lower East Side. As they did then, they set up with a negligible fanfare, telling the crowd, "It's too quiet in here" before launching into their blackened retro-thrash; the local crowd responds by throwing themselves with abandon in the pit. Are Toxic Holocaust original? No. Formulaic? Well, yes, but when the formula is pure napalm, why fuck with it? The three-piece from Philly play the most stripped down set of the night - a little too stripped down at one point, as the bass cuts out completely during one song (frontman and sole guitarist Joel Grind plays on regardless - hope Nafrat were paying attention).

Because of the crowd's enthusiasm, Toxic Holocaust allow themselves an encore, closing with the venomous 'Rip the Cross.' Having been one of the few American metal bands to play Singapore twice, the crowd's hellbent enthusiasm is much deserved (a commentary on Singaporean moshpits - a pair of emo glasses that were thrown to one side at the beginning of Toxic Holocaust's set is retrieved completely intact at the end).


Headliners Obscura play the kind of dizzying technical death metal that fill message boards if not clubs, but they soundcheck with the Scorpion's 'Rock You Like A Hurricane' - as if their German-ness was ever in question. Despite the high-minded nature of their music, the band are modest and frequently funny. Frontman (and first runner-up in a Dan Swanö look-alike contest) Steffen Kummerer invites the audience to have a beer and hang out with the band after their set, a sentiment met with roaring approval.


Obscura, luckily, don't suffer any of the sound problems that plagued the other two bands, and despite mostly appealing to guitar geeks, their live presence is as formidable as any melodic death metal band, with that aura of authenticity that can only come from being European. Though they don't get the same frenzied reaction as Toxic Holocaust, the crowd's appreciation never wanes, with dozens of cameras trying to capture the set for posterity.

After Obscura's set ends, both foreign bands stick around to meet their fans, while most of the audience lines up around the barricades to get autographs and take photos. It's like a comic convention for heshers, and brings home the nature of metal fandom in this part of the world: The attendees almost literally can't afford to just stand around with their arms crossed or walk out before the headliner plays, like they do in the States. Shows are rare, and tickets are expensive. There can't be more than 300 people in the audience, but each one of them will be talking about this show for months to come. I miss that kind of enthusiasm.

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