The Observatory (band)
|Genres||experimental rock, art rock, electronica, indie rock|
|Associated acts||Humpback Oak, Leslie Low, ARCN TEMPL, Meddle, Magus, Hanging Up the Moon, Piblokto, Chöd, X' Ho|
Yuen Chee Wai
|Past members||Evan Tan
The Observatory is an art rock, experimental and electronica band based in Singapore, consisting largely of alumni from significant 1990s Singaporean bands. They are influential in the Singapore music scene. The band formed in 2001 and performed for the first time at the Baybeats music festival in December 2002. They have released six albums, Time of Rebirth (March 2004), Blank Walls (September 2004), A Far Cry From Here (April 2007), Dark Folke (July 2009), Catacombs (April 2012) and Oscilla (Aug 2014). The band has performed in Norway, Italy, Japan, France, Germany and Singapore, and headlined regional music events in Malaysia and Thailand, such as MTV's Pattaya Music Festival, Heineken Fat Festival Bangkok and the Seoul Fringe Festival.
- 1 Members
- 2 Discography
- 2.1 Albums
- 2.2 Compilations
- 2.3 Split Albums and Collaborations
- 3 References
- 4 External links
Former frontman of veteran local band Humpback Oak, Low is the singer, guitarist and occasional bassist in the band. He is a music composer and sound designer by profession. Low graduated from the School of Film and Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a Diploma in Film, Sound and Video. He has also been involved in several side projects. As PAN GU, Low's collaboration with Lasse Marhaug (electronics), Primeval Man Born of the Cosmic Egg, made it to SPIN's Top 20 Avant albums of 2013.
Vivian Wang – Vocals, Piano, keyboards, Melodica, Percussion
Classically trained pianist Vivian Wang sings, plays keyboards and generates sonic effects on laptops and synthesizer. Wang is a former TV presenter of the arts programme "Artitude" on local channel TV12 and also a host of Cathay Pacific's inflight series "World of Travel". A music supervisor and film producer by profession, Wang graduated with an Honours in Music. Wang is active in ARCN TEMPL, a duo with Low. Their debut Emanations of a New World (May 2010) and a web-only commemorative release Glass Blood (May 2014), were both released by American label Utech Records.
Yuen Chee Wai has been active in the local and international experimental and improv circuit for the past 15 years. He is also a part of the Far East Network (FEN) – a quartet composed of Otomo Yoshihide (Japan), Yan Jun (China) and Hankil Ryu (South Korea).
Cheryl Ong – Drums, Percussion
Cheryl Ong plays with her main act SA, an experimental trio that uses traditional Chinese instruments.
Dharma – (former member) Electric Guitar
A Nanyang Technological University Engineering graduate, Dharma was a former mechanical engineer at Epson. He has been involved in the Singapore underground music scene since the early 1990s as a guitarist with the band Heritage from 1995–1998, frontman of the local funk band, Throb, and member of Meddle and Chöd. In November 2014, Dharma left The Observatory to migrate away from Singapore.
Bani Haykal – (former member) Drums, Percussion, Clarinet
Born in 1985, Bani Haykal is a multidisciplinary artist whose work spans the fields of visual and literary performances, using music and sound as primary mediums. A critically reflective artist and thinker, Bani's work examines the perceptions, relevance and culture of sound and music. In 2013, Bani was awarded the Young Artist Award by Singapore's National Arts Council. Bani joined the band after the release of Catacombs and left before Oscilla.
Victor Low – (former member) Electric Guitar, Classical Guitar, Bass Guitar, Glockenspiel, Percussion
Music composer by profession. Low is former bassist of veteran local Singapore band Concave Scream. A classical guitar specialist, Low has also performed on drums since Ray Aziz left the band. Low is an Economics graduate of Boston University. Low left the band after the release of Catacombs.
One-time archivist specialising in audio-visual restoration at the National Archives of Singapore. Tan toured overseas with former band The Padres during their album promotion organised by Rock Records. An active performer/programmer in the digital music scene. Tan left the band after the release of Dark Folke.
Ray Aziz – (former member) Drums, Percussion
Veteran drummer in Singapore, his former bands include Swirling Madness, Opposition Party, Sugarflies and Popland. He is currently also playing with Throb and The Blues Machine. Joining The Observatory during the A Far Cry From Here recording sessions, Ray contributed jazz/avant rock-styled drumming. He did not appear on Dark Folke and has since left the band. However, in 2011 he played drums for the band in a special performance commissioned by the Singapore Arts Festival to play a concert pull of reworkings of the Beatles' White Album.
Adam Shah – (former member) drums, percussion
Formerly the youngest member of the group. A sessionist since 15, Adam is musically adept at guitar and bass as well. He joined in January 2005, bringing with him a style that reflects his eclectic influences such as Bloc Party, Radiohead, Broken Social Scene, Lamb of God, Mastodon, John Coltrane, John Butler, The Mars Volta and Pat Metheny, to name a few. Adam left the band after the release of Blank Walls and before A Far Cry From Here.
Time of Rebirth
- Released: March 2004
- Produced by: The Observatory & Rennie Gomes
- Mixed by: The Observatory & Rennie Gomes at members' homes and at Yellow Box Studios, Singapore
The debut album, Time of Rebirth, released in March 2004, is described by the band as "a quiet, ruminating album of poignant songs underlined by delicate textures and lush instrumentation. Delivered in hush tones over layers of subtle electronic elements blended with a distinct acoustic feel." It was written and recorded over a period of two-and-a-half years.
Reviewing the demo version of Time of Rebirth on BigO, Ivan Thomasz called it "a timely way-station on the journey of life", while critic Paul Zach praised the official album as being "so achingly, subtly gorgeous, it defies categorisation". Despite not receiving any airplay from local radio stations, 800 copies of the Time of Rebirth demo were sold, with the official album being picked up by Universal Music SIngapore for distribution, selling out its first run of 2,000 copies. Nominating Time of Rebirth as the Best Album of 2004, Razali Abdullah of Today called it "a groundbreaking album so ethereally beautiful...a local band as good as [The Observatory] comes by once a millennium." Reviewing the album in The Straits Times, Yeow Kai Chai wrote that "The Observatory invoke otherworldly beauty through a blend of electric gadgetry and classic instrumentation…gradually laying bare their emotional core while taking your breath away", while Chris Ho praised Time of Rebirth for being "[t]ender and beautiful in its intimacy".
Time of Rebirth features non-standard packaging designed by Kinetic. Rather than coming in a jewel case, it was released in the form of a diary, complete with paper-clipped photographs and torn pages. The band all had a hand in assembling the packaging. A music video for "Killing Time", directed by Royston Tan, was also released.
- Released September 2005
- Produced by: The Observatory & Jorgen Traeen
- Mixed by: Jorgen Traeen @ Duper, Norway
Their second album, Blank Walls, elaborates on the band’s philosophy of perpetual change, and is described by the band as "deliberately loose, eschewing particular themes and genres while embracing unconventional structures, progressive sounds and improvisatory forms, continuing an experimentation with song form, delving into greater depths of musical and lyrical tension, creating a diverse, experimental palette of words, sonic layering, and musical contrasts. The subject matter signals a mood-shift towards a more palpable intensity, exploring various themes from anger to disenchantment, from the quaint and humorous to self-mockery or plain indignation."
Today gave Blank Walls 4/5, praising The Observatory for "upp[ing] the ante by bringing in new drummer Adam Shah – who gives the band an unexpected edge – and crafting a beautiful opus that is hauntingly powerful." Complimenting The Observatory on how "the[ir] audacity can be heard in the way sounds are spliced, unwound and transplanted without warning", Yeow Kai Chai of The Straits Times wrote, "No other Singapore band, past or present, has captured the imagination quite like The Observatory. In two brief years, this experimental space-rock combo has risen from nowhere to become a premier act which everybody talks about with a kind of reverential hush."
Featuring art by Andy Yang, Blank Walls was launched on 2 September 2005 at a sold-out, lauded concert at the Recital Studio of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. A music video for "Olives", directed by Patrick Ong and fFurious, was also released.
A Far Cry From Here
- Released April 2007
- Produced by Jørgen Træen and The Observatory
- Mixed & mastered by Jørgen Træen at Duper Studio (Bergen, Norway)
- Recorded by Jørgen Træen at Boss Studio (Singapore), with Philip Wong
Following on from Time of Rebirth and Blank Walls, this was The Observatory's third album in four years. The band was influenced by Soft Machine, This Heat, Tortoise, Talk Talk, Supersilent, Brian Wilson, Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake and Jaga Jazzist, whom The Observatory opened up for at the Mosaic Music Festival in 2007, amongst others. The album was described by the band as "a rich and imaginative musical vision, on which vocalist-guitarist Leslie Low builds his pensive, tender yet elliptical song-craft. The adventurous and epic exist in perfect tandem with restraint and intricacy. Exploring an ocean of sound and emotion, A Far Cry From Here should strike a chord with fans of experimental and progressive-minded classics such as Radiohead's OK Computer, Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and Wilco's A Ghost Is Born." Unlike the process on Time of Rebirth and Blank Walls, where the band built on frontman Leslie Low's arrangements, each band member contributed ideas for songs on A Far Cry From Here.
Reviewing the album for the Singapore edition of Time Out, Chris Toh wrote that A Far Cry From Here "delves even deeper into experimental melodies and rhythms than the band's previous critically acclaimed albums". The Today review noted how A Far Cry From Here "revels in a sense of unease and is the most obvious sign yet of the band's move away from its past 'ambient candy' sound". Yeow Kai Chai of The Straits Times praised The Observatory for "delving deep and venturing into the unknown...This sense of unease, a constant calibration between heaviness and lightness, informs the way the music switches between jazzy delicacy and far-out phases of post-rock noiseniks. It's both the beauty and the beast... it's a ghostly, raw, sometimes intense soundscape with minimal overdubs to frighten off lazy lounge cats."
As with previous releases, the band chose a non-standard packaging instead of the conventional jewel case. The outer package is a small box with flap, containing a foldout multipanel slipcover with information, and a CD holder in the last section. A Far Cry From Here was launched on 14 April 2007 at Zouk.
- Released July 2009
- Produced by Jørgen Træen and The Observatory
- Recorded, Mixed & mastered by Jørgen Træen at Duper Studio (Bergen, Norway)
The fourth album was again recorded and mixed in Bergen, Norway with their longtime collaborator, Jorgen Traeen. The band describes the work as "a change in musical direction" and said "the math prog rock of The Observatory's third album A Far Cry From Here has morphed into a fluid mystical beast called Dark Folke. Most songs have no drums on them. But there is rhythm. Only the type of rhythm associated with an invisible pulse. An implied rhythm. 5 folks sitting around a fire. A metaphorical fire. Chanting for the rain to come."
"Moving away from the melodious constraints of song," Ang Song Ming writes in his review, "Dark Folke veers towards ambience – an almost asphyxiating kind", calling it the band's Kid A. Noah Berlatsky remarked in Metro Pulse on the album's combination of freak folk, drony psychedelia and near-metal. Christopher Lim of The Business Times called Dark Folke "A rich sonic feast.. a diving pool that begs to have its depths plumbed", while Christopher Toh of Today awarded the album 4 out of 5, writing that "Album No 4 for The Observatory is a great excursion into what making music in Scandinavia in the wintertime sounds like...the album is wonderfully hypnotic."
The CD album is a hardbound book, designed and drawn by metal/hardcore/underground illustrator and designer, Justin Bartlett, the artist behind the art of Sunn O))), Moss, Aura Noir and more. Dark Folke was also released on double vinyl. A music video for "Mind Roots", directed by Ler Jiyuan, was also released.
In the lead-up to the release of Dark Folke, The Observatory collaborated with filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen and theatre director Kok Heng Leun on Invisible Room, a multimedia work for the Singapore Arts Festival featuring the band performing in an 'inverted' music space. "Invisible Room" is also the title of a Dark Folke song.
- Released April 2012
- Produced by Jørgen Træen and The Observatory
- Recorded and Mixed by Jorgen Traeen
- Mastered by James Plotkin
The Observatory's fifth album, Catacombs, is described by the band as containing "a more primal, new dark wave sound...[a] study in delusion, insanity and obsession [that] provokes and inspires in a deeply enigmatic way. Even at its coldest and most abstract, it is human to the core."
Writing that "The Observatory have outdone themselves this time", X' Ho reviewed Catacombs by declaring, "Someday in the future, some pop historian is gonna look back and say – Catacombs marks the beginning of a new horizon in local music for the sheer fact that waywardness in Singapore's ultra-leftfield, alternative-rock has been deemed fetching and unanimously praised with this album." Critic Kevin Mathews praised Catacombs by calling it "an uncompromising honest work of art that expresses the deepest feelings and emotions of the artist and lays them bare for its audience to dissect, absorb and devour." my Paper described Catacombs as "dark, visceral and multi-faceted", promising that it will "get under your skin – and stay there." Yeow Kai Chai of The Straits Times awarded the album four out of five stars, comparing it to late Scott Walker and noting lyricist Leslie Low's references to Dutch occultist Johann Weyer and French philosopher Michel Foucault, writing that "the band have moved out of the mainstream into the furthest frontiers of the universe."
Featuring design by Keith Utech and art by Thomas Hooper, Catacombs was released on deluxe CD, digital and double vinyl. Catacombs was launched on 20 and 21 April 2012 at The Substation Theatre. Enter the Catacomb, a series of live sessions featuring the band performing Catacombs in its entirety in the studio, was also released.
- Released August 2014
- Produced by The Observatory
- Engineered by Johnny Sarcophagus
- Mixed by Leslie Low
- Mastered by James Plotkin
The Observatory's sixth album, Oscilla, is described by the band as "the imagined swing of our imperfect times", featuring "vibrations of shifting rhythms, synth bass space, oscillators and abused guitars". The four songs on Oscilla were developed on a tour with Norwegian noise band MoE in Norway in 2012 and Italy in 2013, then tested on the road during a Southeast Asian tour in October and November 2013, culminating in a divisive performance at St. Jerome's Laneway Festival in Singapore. The lyrics deal with political tumult and according to the band's lyricist Leslie Low, reflect "[c]ommon people like us making a stand. Living off the grid in some way or another, (offering) criticism of existing paradigms, alternatives, the view from the ground up". The title track makes reference to Zomia, historian Willem van Schendel and James C. Scott's term for the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centres of the lowlands.
Reviewing the album in Today, Kevin Mathews writes, "Oscilla is cutting-edge art that one can conceivably rock out to, which is no mean feat", awarding it full marks. Yeow Kai Chai gave the album four out of five stars, writing in The Straits Times that Oscilla "scans the deplorable state of the world, questions war and strife, and assesses the value of life. To that end, its restless, angular riffs cut and draw blood." Daniel Peters of Bandwagon observed the "politically-charged" dimension of Oscilla, writing that the "elongated hypnotic rhythms akin to krautrock and a harsh post-punk intensity...establishes Oscilla as one of the most confrontational records we've heard all year."
Featuring photographs by Philipp Aldrup, Oscilla was released on CD, digital, vinyl and cassette. Oscilla was launched on 16 and 17 August 2014 at The Substation Theatre, featuring appearances by Hanging Up the Moon's Sean Lam, Dean Aziz and former member Victor Low on back-up vocals.
City Sharks: Music From the Motion Picture
- Released: 2003
- Executive Producers: Esan Sivalingam and Bratina Tay
- Music Supervisors: Vivian Wang and Esan Sivalingam
An early incarnation of The Observatory contribute one song, "Sweetest Man" to the soundtrack of this film, written and directed by Esan Sivalingam.
- Released: 2006
- Mastered by Reece Tunbridge at Studios 301, Sydney, Australia
Rennie Gomes' remix of "This Sad Song" from The Observatory's debut album, Time of Rebirth, was included on this charity release. Proceeds from this Aging Youth Records release went to Music For Good, a non-profit organisation involved in outreach programs to youths.
+65 Indie Underground
- Released: 2009
The Observatory's "This Sad Song" from their debut album, Time of Rebirth, was collected in this three-CD compilation of Singapore indie rock, alongside tracks by Humpback Oak, The Oddfellows and Zircon Lounge.
Peter Kruder Private Collection
- Released: 2009
The Observatory's "Waste Your Life" from their debut album, Time of Rebirth, was handpicked by Peter Kruder of electronic duo Kruder & Dorfmeister for G-Stone Master Series №1: Peter Kruder Private Collection. Other acts on the compilation include Talk Talk, Tortoise, whom The Observatory opened up for at the Mosaic Music Festival in 2005, and Tom Waits.
- Released: Sep 2012
A collection of unreleased and live material, demos, covers and rarities, Anatomicron’s 13 tracks, including a Nick Drake cover, trace The Observatory's evolution through constantly changing trajectories and terrains. Anatomicron was released in support of the upcoming, crowd-funded, experimental music documentary, The Obs: A Documentation.
Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes
- Released: Apr 2014
- Jointly released by The Observatory and Ujikaji
Featuring 11 interpretations of Catacombs songs by artists from Singapore, China, Norway, Thailand/Japan, and the US, including James Plotkin, Lasse Marhaug and Xhin. Interviewed about Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes, singer Low called the album "Eleven musical visions-lessons-perspectives. The interpretations elaborate on Catacombs' theme of madness and reach sonic territories we could never achieve on our own."
The album was reviewed positively on Midnight Shift Records' blog: "As these artists take The Observatory’s songs further into a digital register, what seemed like a highly personal album dilates into something like a genre unto itself." Reviewing the album in The Straits Times, Yeow Kai Chai wrote that Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes "meddles with the songs to spectacular effect...Overall, it's a rabbit hole to somewhere riskier and more exciting."
Featuring art by Mark Wong, Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes was released on double vinyl. The album was launched on 25 April 2014 at Artistry, featuring performances and DJ sets by Kiat, Xhin, George Chua and former member Evan Tan.
Split Albums and Collaborations
Gezeitentümpel | Tidal Pools
- Released: 2013
An hour-long improvisational soundtrack to photographer Philipp Aldup's 2013 exhibition, Gezeitentümpel, released as a seven-track CD-R.
i.i.i. / Mankind
- Released: June 2013
- Mixing by Leslie Low and Håvard Skaset
- Mastering by James Plotkin.
- Design and album art by Lasse Marhaug
This split vinyl single with MoE features Balinese gamelan-inspired bronze instruments the band built on their song, "Mankind". Other instruments on the track include a pair of jegogan and pemade, one cengceng, and a reyong set with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals.
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- The Observatory website
- The Observatory blog
- The Observatory on Vimeo
- POSKOD.SG Interview with frontman Leslie Low
- Leslie Low website
- NYLON SINGAPORE Video Interview with The Observatory
- Razor TV Video Interview with The Observatory
Note: Some material for this article adapted from The Observatory Press pack(zip file), accessed 3 March 2006