Observing diversity in unity

Observing diversity in unity
The Observatory.

Lao Tzu opined: "Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides."

You think of the Chinese philosopher's saying while listening to Ronnie 2014, a song named after a friend on Salvation, a disc from Kelvin Tan's birthday suite, The 50.

That friend, Ronnie Yeo, hanged himself when they were both 16. As Tan celebrates his own half-century existence this month, he commemorates Yeo and other contemporaries who have died young as reminders to not take life for granted.

I was reviewing Tan's five-disc boxset just as I heard terrible news that the American comedian Robin Williams had died in an apparent suicide from asphyxiation.

"I remember, I remember your heart... and sometimes life just gets us down and sometimes life just seems to break our hearts... You left too soon," Tan sings on the track, closely miked, as he strums his acoustic guitar.

It's a heartfelt elegy addressed to Yeo, but the words are fitting for Williams too, who was well known for his large heart and being giving in his craft.

That's the gift of Tan, the stubborn old wolf.

He can be ridiculously obtuse, ceaselessly referencing a gazillion sources, from the Bible (the albums come with alternative Hebrew titles) to jazz legends (John Coltrane, Charlie Haden) and avant-garde composers (John Zorn) - and yet at the same time, he can speak plainly and nail it.

Listen to the near-10-minute title track 50, a brilliant mission statement: "I don't think about how we're going to live tomorrow, because tomorrow I may be gone. I don't think much about the pain and sorrow, because there's too much to do," he sings over buttery strums.

Even when things get rough, this guy isn't going to go gently.

Any surprise he'd pay tribute to Lou Reed, the rock iconoclast who died last October with a rollickin' rocker Gold (from the disc Restoration), effortlessly mimicking the latter's devil-may-care slurs? He becomes Reed, a possession so uncanny, you smile.

By invoking spirits of pals and music heroes past, the musician lives many lives, and deaths, without regret.

Similarly unrepentant are art rock collective The Observatory.

Whereas 2012's Catacombs is dark and insular, their sixth release Oscilla swings outwards.

It 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.

The gently wispy-voiced Leslie Low sings in a gravelly baritone these days, intoning at the least like a Nick Cave in a shamanistic kaftan. It suits the material.

The ever-propulsive Autodidact and Subterfuge are sparked by an inner fire, to right the wrongs and to take up arms when inertia is easier.

Two of the longest tracks here manifest the band's prog-rock leanings. Oscilla moves in a squall of mercurial electric riffs, thunderous drums (care of new drummer Cheryl Ong) and industrial synths and F/X (by electronic artist Yuen Chee Wai).

The ominous martial drums underscore Distilled Ashes, as Low casts a dispassionate eye across the postapocalyptic detritus.

Are you alive or really just the walking dead? The Observatory prick your conscience and soldier on before you can answer.

Listen to the polyphony of voices in music and realise the importance of diversity in unity

Sound Bites

Albums of the week

INDIE ROCK/FOLK/EXPERIMENTAL

The 50

Kelvin Tan Aporia

4****

ART ROCK

Oscilla

The Observatory The Observatory

4****

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