My neighbors love karaoke so much, they’ve decided to do it every night. They appear to be decent, well-meaning people, I assume they just lack the self awareness that our ears are privy to every rendition of “Hot Stuff” that Tita Kapitbahay belts out. The attacks keep us up at night. Their familial tradition has become such a fixture in our household that on the rare occasion that I hear a cricket chirp, I pause to listen in childlike amusement.
I suppose it’s all just another aspect of that Pinoy charm: we love to croon. Singing is probably as Filipino as, say, SkyFlakes. An ardent passion for saccharine love ballads and ’80s pop anthems is just one of those idiosyncrasies we fine-looking island people possess, like when I lovingly set aside my chicken skin so I can indulge in its crisp, juicy goodness at the end of my meal. I don’t really blame us for our obsession with music. We’re pretty amazing at it. Many of our local acts feature incredibly capable lead singers; powerhouse vocalists who can arrest a crowd’s fragmented attention with the release of a single, effortless note—which makes the recent advent of instrumental bands in the OPM scene something of an anomaly.
I’ll be honest, there was a time in my blind, ignorant youth when I believed instrumental music was doomed to exist only within the confines of the elevator, or that awkward space between ‘please hold’ and ‘how may I help you?’. Indeed, there’s something deeply countercultural about an all-instrumental band—especially in a country so religiously devoted to every Filipino contestant in every foreign singing show ever.
Musical groups without vocalists, then, are theoretically supposed to occupy only a small niche of the industry, and oftentimes merely as novelties. In recent years, however, bands like Tom’s Story, Mind Money Circuit, and tide/edit have shown little regard for marketability, and have managed to penetrate the mainstream anyway. Through laced guitars, enticing riffs, and rhythms that range from the conservatively composed to the irresistibly incendiary, instrumental rock has made itself known, and has taken a firm hold on the Pinoy audience.
The Facebook generation in particular has taken to embracing this recent bevy of experimental OPM acts—thanks in part to the wealth of exposure provided by Social Media. Online platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube afford musical acts unadulterated experimentation and brand-building. Never before has a mainstream breakthrough become more reachable than for today’s musicians. The local scene has never been more pregnant with potential—the possibilities, like the Shake, Rattle & Roll films, are endless.
Tom’s Story is one such local breakthrough. Rooted in math rock, the group incorporates various interlocking rhythms in order to achieve an all-encompassing sound. Anchors, the opening track of their eponymous LP, is a cascade of torrential guitars that culminates in a symphonic apex, delighting without dizzying. Their live instrumentation is even more exciting; one marvels at how Light takes on a shimmering new imagining when accompanied by a tenor sax and violin.
tide/edit has also enjoyed huge success, opening for international acts and receiving a steady stream of warm reception. ‘We play happy music’, their official website proclaims, and indeed their work is composed mainly of positive, fresh songs brimming with vitality and brilliant composure. Their camaraderie as a group comes off effortlessly; they seem to know precisely how to complement each other’s strengths, taking what each member brings to the kitchen counter and whipping up a killer casserole. Always Right, Never Left is a standout, and showcases the group’s knack for making layered, multi-dimensional tracks come off as completely natural. Further is a feat of intelligent sound structuring that is at times reflective and others ecstatic.
Mind Money Circuit has similarly taken the instrumental rock scene by storm. Their track Shibuya is popular for its catchy, dance-y pulse, and sounds exactly like the Tokyo district it was named for: alert, urban, and refined. Drummer Waffles Obeso (an adorable name) lets loose on the complicated track and knows when to intermit the beat and let his bandmates take it away. Everything just clicks. Their versatility is fully realized on This Place, which begins as a chillout number, its lead guitars strumming beautifully to create a quietly lovely melody. Steadily however, Circuit takes things into full play and stuns with climactic guitar licks and a full-circle ending.
Earthmover is a slightly darker, more brooding act. Their material is incredible—polished and utterly human. Two is a masterpiece in three distinct parts, alternating between smooth and disruptive and back again. Its music video is a piece of art in itself, slightly reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. Ivered Ago, on the other hand, exhibits a kind of restraint in its initial shiver of percussion, before blooming into a reverie which eventually escalates into a complete rock out.
Listening to these tracks through my earphones gives me a weird kind of sensation, as if in the absence of words, music ceases to restrict itself to a set shape. Perhaps, then, instrumental rock isn’t such a conundrum after all. It can be quite stunning how a floodgate of imagery breaks loose once vocals are removed from the picture. Really, maybe it’s about time we shift the spotlight away from the vocalists just a little bit. After all, there’s an entire world of local musicians out there who can’t sing.
Photography by Isabella Jhocson