The Sound of Sirens

Have you ever heard a song a hundred times but simply don’t get affected by it at all?  You don’t find it nice, but you don’t find it unpleasant either.  It’s just the kind of song that caresses your ears and eventually gets taken away by the gentlest breeze.  Until one day, you hear it again, and suddenly it hits you differently.  Suddenly, you care.  And then you think, “How could I have not truly heard this before?”

As Incubus’ Brandon Boyd once perfectly explained it in a letter posted in the band’s website so many years ago, such is a curious thing about music: one day it can be nothing, and the next time you hear it, it can totally capture you.  The song has now struck a chord in you, which you didn’t even know was there.  And I couldn’t agree with Boyd more on this because it has happened to me several times.  In fact, many of the bands—including Incubus—and songs I love started out this way.  There must be in the combination of time (or timing), personal experiences, and perhaps even fate acting as a cosmic DJ out to deliver you a sign or a message that allows the words and music of a song you really didn’t initially notice to penetrate the walls of your heart now.

Quite recently, I’ve experienced something like this again.  For the past couple of months or so, I had been hearing a track from Pearl Jam quite frequently.  I thought it was a current release since it was repeatedly being played on a local radio I listen to.  I knew neither what it was all about nor its title.  All I knew was that it had Eddie Vedder’s unmistakable voice in it.  Despite hearing it almost every day, all that stuck to me was a few seconds of its melody.

The song is more impactful considering that we live in a time when a pandemic is on a rampage, highlighting the fragility of human existence. Nowadays, simply being safe is a whole lot to be thankful for.

One fine day as I heard it again, I suddenly had a bit of a nudge.  It was the memory of someone I know whom I think is into Pearl Jam. I wondered whether he was aware of this track and liked it.  That was when I decided to get myself acquainted with it.  I searched for the lyrics online and upon reading them, I couldn’t help but feel emotional as the words felt so beautifully sad, soulful, and sincere.  Sirens perfectly captures the ideas of love and fear and how these two are bound by the delicate threads of life, which can be cut without any warning.  In the two choruses of the song, Vedder sings:

Oh, had to take your hand, and feel your breath
For fear this someday will be over
I pull you close, so much to lose
Knowing that nothing lasts forever
I didn’t care, before you were here
I danced in laughter, with the ever after
But all things change, let this remain

[…]

It’s a fragile thing this life we lead
If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed
By the grace by which we live our lives
With death over our shoulders
Want you to know that should I go
I always loved you held you high above, true
I study your face and the fear goes away

These are the kind of words that could make your heart glow yet bleed at the same time.

My appreciation for the song further deepened when I watched its official video, which was recorded live… almost a decade ago!  There was just something about watching it being performed live that added a dash of magic to my experience.  How I could have completely ignored this song multiple times when the lyrics were this good baffled me!

I began listening to it more afterwards.  I played it so many times that I eventually memorized the words, which was weird because I can’t memorize lyrics as easily as I used to.  Strangely, maybe only a couple days after rediscovering the song, I no longer heard it on air.  It was as though it had a mission to make itself known to me, and now that it had already been fulfilled, it disappeared.  I’m thankful for whatever magic that brought this song to me because I was able to get to know what perhaps is the most beautiful one I’ve heard so far this 2021, a time when sirens, too, have made their presence known more frequently than ever before.

Music is really funny that way, no?  You may hear a song a hundred times—maybe even sing it all the time—and still not care much about it only to get affected by it quite differently the next time you hear it.  If you’re really going to think about it, this phenomenon is not limited merely to music: it can be the same with movies, places, even people, and a whole lot of other things in life.  I guess, you can’t really see or in this case hear things until you’re ready to do so.

New Old Finds

Two seconds.  Two seconds was all it took for me to be able to identify a couple of songs that played on the radio yesterday that featured all Filipino music.  From 00:00-00:02, a drum machine’s initial beats already told me that it was Sana by UDD, and I was proven correct as the song inched further.  The same thing happened when another tune came up later on; a high pitch guitar part at 02:02-02:04 triggered my memory and recognized it as part of Stonefree’s Listen.  While what I did was no big achievement, I must admit that I myself got impressed with how quickly I was able to pinpoint what songs they were.  (My useless talent #37! Raise your hand if you get the reference.)  Unfortunately, I don’t think I would fare as well as I did had those songs been released recently or even in the last several years.   Sad to say that my connection to the current world of OPM isn’t as strong as it used to.

Just like what I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, that connection sort of weakened because of a number of factors.  One is that I eventually stopped going to gigs.  I used to go to a lot of them when I was young, but as years marched on, gig buddies became busier with their lives, and I, on the other hand, found fewer bands that really interested me.  Yes, there have been a lot of talented young bands and artists who have emerged over the years, and I’ve listened to some good tracks, but generally, their style just didn’t jive much with my taste enough for me to follow them completely.  Also, heavy or intense rock/alternative became less prominent and yielded to upbeat tunes that were heavy on synths, which I can appreciate, but not in large quantities.  Although initially, I got a bit tired of heavy music towards the 2010s and decided to pivot to happier sounding tunes, by the time I wanted go back heavy sounds, they had become scarce.

Another thing is that I got steeped in foreign music more later on.  Technology had a big hand in this as it further allowed me to discover all sorts of artists coming from different corners of the world.  But perhaps the major reason for this detachment is due to the demise of the local rock station NU107.  NU exposed me to a huge amount of Filipino rock music, so when it shut down in 2010, I gradually lost contact.  NU’s torch was sort of unofficially passed to Jam88.3, but the latter didn’t play OPM as frequent as the former did.  Of course, there were other radio stations that played Filipino music, but they didn’t exactly match my taste (with the exception of KZ Tandingan after discovering Imposible last year). Even though I can easily access music online now, they simply do not stick to me unlike the ones I hear on the radio, for some reason.  I don’t know why it is so; maybe it’s an age thing, or maybe because there’s just too much music online nowadays that it’s easier to get drowned in it and forget it.  Whatever the case may be, I still find listening and discovering music, particularly OPM, more effective when I hear it on the radio.

Over the last several months, I stumbled upon some nice new OPM tracks, all of which are also set in Tagalog (yes!) All of them I discovered through Jam’s Republik program, which airs on Sundays.  Most of them are not technically new as some were released as back as two to three years ago; they are, however, new to me.  Some of them I’ve already heard before, but I just had a bit of difficulty of knowing them since there were no DJs who introduced them.  I sometimes forgot their lyrics too, so I was unable to search for them online.  And no, I don’t have Siri or Alexa to help me identify them on the spot either. 

So, here is a select number of Filipino tunes that made an impression on me this first half of 2021.

This gives me a 90s feel because of its male-female duet style of singing and the melody itself.
Love the lyrics!
Ken’s beautiful voice and the acoustic guitar make this tune really soothing.  Plus, the words are encouraging.  Nice.
I’ve known this song maybe as early as last year, but it’s only this year that I was able to explore Syd Hartha’s music more.  Very interesting video right here, too!
Among all the songs in this list, this is the one that most immediately caught my attention because of its intensity and the instrumentation used.  It reminds me so much of Linkin Park.
Laid back and sultry.  There’s something familiar about it, but I just can’t pinpoint what it is.
Also gives off some 90s vibe here.  Vocals remind me a little bit of Cynthia Alexander’s.

Although Republik features a lot of OPM songs, many of the songs aired there are also from many years ago, so I don’t think I’ll discover a lot of new new songs there, but it’s a good place for me to get reacquainted with OPM rock and alternative somehow.

‘Di Mapapatahimik: Dicta License’s Pagbigkas Album Review

2016 election season—regardless of whom people voted for during that time, one thing is indisputable: that time was incredibly toxic.  It’s not that Philippine elections are normally calm because they are always far from being so.  It isn’t unusual to hear candidates or members of their families or campaign entourage getting involved in an election related violence.  But 2016 was different from all the other previous elections in a way because the poison stemming from the strong opposing political beliefs spread so overwhelmingly not solely among the candidates but the voters themselves as well. Social media platforms, which used to be generally an avenue to share fun posts, suddenly became a hotbed for fake news, arguments, threats, and insults.  Slowly, people started muting, unfriending, and/or blocking each other online.  Outside social media, heated political discussions permeated lunch breaks of colleagues, family gatherings, and dinners with friends, causing some ruptures in social and personal relationships.  While some preferred to keep quiet, many were armed and ready to bring out the guns when the occasion arose.  Even artists, who are seen by others as people who should be apolitical, were very vocal.  Personally, I don’t have any problems with this.  Their being artists shouldn’t hinder the expression of their political beliefs.  They are after all citizens, too, and they have the same right to air out their opinions as much as everyone else does.  There was a specific bunch of musicians whom I was waiting to speak, though: Dicta License.

Dicta License (minus Bryan Makasiar) | 📷: Dianna Capco (via Dicta’s FB page)
L-R: Kelley Mangahas, Pochoy Labog, & Boogie Romero.

Known for their socially relevant songs, Dicta License were in hiatus at the time because vocalist Pochoy Labog was pursuing higher studies in the US.  Although I had an idea of whom they were supporting, I couldn’t be completely sure.  There were a number of musicians who surprised me by supporting a particular candidate I didn’t approve of.  However, I wouldn’t even have to look very far because in my own social circle and among my relatives, there were those who were ready to defend to the death their presidential bet, which honestly shocked and disappointed me because I thought we shared the same values. But as one of my friends told me, there was nothing we could do about it—it was their right to choose their leaders no matter how frustrating their choices may be.  

Just a few days before the May election, a surprise arrived: Labog posted a song titled Diktador with the caption “Para sa Pinas” on his personal Facebook page.  Although the title has a negative connotation, I still wasn’t sure of his stand because for all I know the message that he wanted to put out was that the country needed one; the first four lines, however, immediately cleared everything up.  And honestly, upon hearing them, a smile formed on my face, and I felt so relieved to know that we were on the same side.  

Diktador had a strong hip-hop vibe but with only light instrumentation; the lyrics, straight to the point.  Anyone who didn’t even have much knowledge of the presidential candidates could tell right away who Labog was referring to even without mentioning any name.  Already I could tell that this song was different from the other Dicta License tracks.  Apart from the rawness of the music itself, the lyrics were sharper.  Though Dicta License songs have always been socially relevant, they are written as commentaries of what’s happening in society in general.  The lyrics of Diktador, however, referenced a specific government official, which, as expected, earned the ire of his followers.   Despite this, Labog remained unfazed and wrote more songs this time with the help of other fellow Dicta License members guitarist Boogie Romero and bassist Kelly Mangahas.  The political climate of the time had set the tone for a work that would later on be the band’s long overdue sophomore release, Pagbigkas.

[During a MYX interview, Boogie inadvertently reveals that the time stamps in these CCTV footage hold significant meaning. Labog explains that in the last few frames, these time stamps eventually freeze and represent actual dates.]

Released on Day of Valor, April 9, 2021, Pagbigkas came 16 long years after their debut, Paghilom.  16 years is definitely an unbelievable length of time to follow up a debut!  To be completely honest, I learned not to get my hopes up anymore whenever the topic of releasing a sophomore album came up.  Don’t get me wrong: For a long time, I waited for that second album to be birthed (as early as 2007!), and even in 2016, I wanted them to be able to finally produce it especially since I felt that thought-provoking music based on the sociopolitical conditions was lacking at the time, and that their voice was needed to be heard.  But when a band splits up after saying that they are already working on the next album, and then reunites years after only to go on a hiatus and then regroups a couple more times, it’s just better to be cautious not to be so hopeful.  Even when they dropped the singles Bagong Bayani (2018), a reworked version of Diktador (2019), Salita, and Inosenteng Bala (both in 2020), I was delighted about the new material, but I tried not to set any more expectations about a future album and told myself to believe it only when it was already released.  So, when the band started dropping teasers of Pagbigkas in early April, the first thing that popped in my mind was Wow, for real? Finally!

Pagbigkas is a huge leap from Paghilom in terms of production, style, and in some ways, content.  Whereas Paghilom has a traditional rock sound, with electric guitars and drums dominating the tracks, Pagbigkas is made fuller and sometimes atmospheric by incorporating keyboards and synthesizers.  The keys in Bagong Bayani and the trumpet sounds in Inosenteng Bala Diktador, and HWFF, for instance, give these songs an interesting twist; some have a bit of a chill (Salita) and peaceful (Pagpupugay) vibe, on the other hand.  While the album maintains a rap rock energy especially with tracks such as Kasama, Posas, and Diktador, influences from different genres such as jazz, soul, acoustic, and even a tad of trip hop are also present.  There are more layers of sound and different textures in each song this time around.  So, no, they sound nothing like Rage Against the Machine here; fans who still want them to sound like RATM would only be greatly disappointed.  For me, I am glad about the new direction they took with their sound.  It shows how much growth as musicians they have acquired. 

[Something new: Aside from Labog and Romero, the album also features other vocals, all of whom are women: ethnic jazz singer and human rights advocate Ja Quintana, Saab Magalona of Cheats, and milliner Mitch Dulce also of the band Us-2 Evil-0.]

When it comes to the album’s lyrical content, Dicta License remain faithful to what they have started with Paghilom: their music is a critical look at what’s happening in Philippine society.  However, as previously stated, their music now has been influenced by what has transpired since the 2016 elections.  Issues such as extrajudicial killings, activism, online trolling, resistance, the actions and policies of certain elected officials, and the attitude of Filipinos who remain loyal to these government officials despite their obvious shortcomings are evident in many of the songs.  Paghilom is an album that can be critical of any period—because unfortunately, the issues raised there have been plaguing Philippine society for a long time already—but the lyrical assault that Pagbigkas has highlights the present administration and social conditions of the country.  Included also in the album are excerpts of the poem Sanayan Lang Ang Pagpatay by Albert E. Alejo SJ and speech by the late Sen. Jose Diokno titled A Nation for Our Children, which further boost the message that the band want to express. Pagbigkas is bolder and unflinching, exactly the kind of music that needs to be conveyed today. 

However, not all tracks in the album are purely criticisms; they are also injected with hope and encouragement; they dare the listeners to uplift others.  Bagong Bayani, for example, searches for new heroes who can rise up to the challenges of the times; Salita begs people to speak up; Elias calls on people to believe in the light within themselves to help others, and Kapangyarihan reminds people that they do have the power to bring forth positive changes to society. 

Among all the songs so far, I really like Bagong Bayani, Diktador, Posas, Kapangyarihan, and the ones that take the top spot, Inosenteng Bala and Pagpupugay.  The soul, jazzy vibe that Inosente has is smooth. It slightly reminds me of Sinosikat’s Turning My Safety Off mixed with As Tall as Lions’ Love, Love, Love. (The keys in Inosente also sound so familiar, but I still can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard it.) and is a contrast to the rap parts and the negativity presented in the lyrics.  I also love how the song comes from the perspective of a bullet, which I find really clever.  There’s a certain calm that Pagpupugay radiates, on the other hand, with the vocals so soothing and the lyrics written with such respect and celebration.  It’s a song that is for me, akin to Joey Ayala’s musical style.  I could be wrong, but I think it is about indigenous peoples.

Dicta License may have released their sophomore effort way beyond the time I have hoped for it to come out, but Pagbigkas couldn’t have arrived at a better time.  Their words are more relevant than ever, reflecting challenges that have always been present in Philippine society and the cracks that have been recently created due to differences in political beliefs.  Some people may not like what they’re saying now, but more still believe in the honesty and power of their artistry.  At a time when some people would rather follow blindly or simply be silent, their music serves as a reminder that people can be agents of positive change, and that we all do have the license to speak.

Mamamatay akong hindi man lang makikita ang ningning ng bukang-liwayway sa aking Bayan. Kayong mga makakakita, salubungin ninyo siya at huwag ninyong kalimutan ang mga taong nalugmok sa dilim ng gabi.

– Elias in Noli Me Tangere (Jose Rizal, 1887)