In an attempt to bring something different to the local music scene, Time Keeper, a Vietnamese post-rock influenced duo that plays mainly instrumentals, has released its first full-length album. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Fred Wissink.
Time Keeper’s debut album, Random Waves, is nothing like I’ve heard, especially in Vietnam. An easy comparison would be to the famous Icelandic post-rock Sigur Ros, or Mogwai, a Scottish band, but neither quite fits.
The duo, made of Phan To and Nguyen Hong Giang, say they draw inspiration from Japanese post-rock, specifically World’s End Girlfriend, a composer who mixes electronic glitch to jazz-infused rock and modern classical.
The influence can be obvious at times, but most of Time Keeper’s songs are still uniquely theirs. Take the four-minute ‘Walk in Time’. The tempo starts out slow, then picks up with classical piano. About halfway through, the song transforms into classical Vietnamese music with sounds resembling the dan bau, a traditional one-string guitar. I first listened to this song while riding my motorbike in the early morning. When I stopped along the river to watch the local market come to life and the boats take off, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect soundtrack to the everyday flow of the city.
To, 25, plays the guitar and bass, while Giang, 22, is on the keyboard. Only two of the 11 tracks on Random Waves have vocals, all in Vietnamese, but the band already has enlisted a third member, and she likely will sing most of the songs on their next album, which they hope to release in the next couple of months.
Time Keeper emerged out of both members’ desire to try something new in Vietnam. “When we made the band, we were just thinking about trying to develop music here,” To says.
To arrived in Saigon from Dalat about six years ago, and started to play in Vietnamese grunge rock and stoner rock bands. Eventually, he says, he began to feel there wasn’t a big enough fan base for genres like these, and that stifled his creativity.
That’s when he met Giang, 22, a freelance composer who has been playing piano since he was 5 years old. Both Giang and To were at the same place, musically. They wanted to try something new and something Vietnamese could relate to.
I can see how Vietnamese would prefer this type of music, though often strange, to other new genres catching on in Ho Chi Minh City, like metal. The soft, looping melodies are easy to listen to. To can tear it up on guitar, but he doesn’t do so very often, which would probably turn off many Vietnamese listeners. He does, however, occasionally return to some pretty grungy riffs that intertwine with Giang’s mix of music, which can range from psychedelic and classical to drum beats and electronica.
Although Hanoi has a growing fan base for post-rock music and more bands like Time Keeper are forming in the north, this music is still new but growing here.
Last month, the band made several live appearances, including one at Decibel in District 1 that attracted a mixed Vietnamese and expat crowd of about 50 people. I had been trying out their album a few days before the show. It is fun to listen to, especially when driving or walking, but the sound quality of their CD has room for improvement. During the live performance, however, their sound was much cleaner. It was also impressive to see so much sound coming out of only two people. When playing live, To says about 50 percent of the music is recorded prior to the show and the rest is played on stage.
Time Keeper’s music certainly isn’t for everyone, but most people at the Decibel show seemed to enjoy it. ‘Cool’ and ‘interesting’ became the key words for the night. The crowd applauded to every song and some called for an encore.
One of the strange things about this genre is that I’ve never found it to be very social. Sometimes it even can get a little depressing. But it is fun to watch To and Giang’s enthusiasm on stage. Whether their music eventually catches on with locals, it provides a more creative alternative to the same old pop songs and techno beats that are getting harder to escape around the city.