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EVERY album by The Observatory is a musical odyssey into the unknown. Which, by the way, is a compliment. Since the veteran local indie band released its debut Time of Rebirth in 2004, its members have kept reinventing themselves; each new work reveals a new sonic complexity not heard in its predecessor.
Their seventh album, Continuum (released in July), is as experimental as it gets for a group that hasn't stopped embarking on new musical adventures since forming in 2001. Some of it can be attributed to the numerous line-up changes The Observatory has undergone over the years.
Continuum is the only album to feature Leslie Low, Vivian Wang, Dharma and Bani Haykal; and was actually recorded before last year's Oscilla but never finished. Dharma and Haykal have since left the band with Yuen Chee Wai and Cheryl Ong joining the group last year. Low and Wang are The Observatory's remaining founding members.
The latter reveals work on Continuum in fact began more than four years ago, before the band even finished its fifth album, 2012's Catacombs. "2011 to 2013 was a phase of musical growth for us all," she says, "We had just gone full-time (as a band) in 2010, and after being awarded the Arts Creation Fund by the National Arts Council, we jumped at the opportunity to really go in depth and learn."
Intrigued by Balinese rhythms, Low explains, "this album has always been a tribute to its tradition and history but is also an attempt to fuse our contemporary Western influences with the building blocks that make up our Southeast Asian roots".
To say Continuum is an ambitious project is an understatement. The recordings feature Balinese gamelan-inspired bronze instruments (jegogan, permade, reyong, ceng ceng) built on a six-tone scale which the band customised themselves.
Performing the album "live" is another matter and when The Observatory did it shortly after the album release, 11 musicians shared the stage.
"Continuum is an extensive piece of work, involving many instruments and parts," notes Ong, the band's current drummer. "We wanted the launch concert to adhere as closely as possible to the recording, so we decided to involve other musicians apart from the four of us in the band right now."
The occasion also became a reunion of sorts as Haykal and another of the band's founding members, Victor Low (who left in 2012 but was with the group in Bali when the seeds of Continuum were being planted), returned for the two shows where the album was performed in its entirety.
"It would have been complete if Dharma could have joined us as well," says Low, of the band's founding guitarist who has since emigrated. "It does bring me back to a time when we were still exploring this headspace and the challenges we all were facing in our personal lives and as a band; and finding our footing while going full-time into music."
Even though Continuum began as an experiment of sorts, the experience has continued to inspire The Observatory across all the band's works. "From this, we truly began to understand how culture must be something that lives, breathes and changes, and helps us understand the connections between the past, present and future," Wang says.
For more information and to order a copy of Continuum on vinyl, CD or digitally, check www.theobservatory.com.sg
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