‘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)

Goodbye, Dance Punks

An end of an era.

After almost three decades of music, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, more popularly known as the duo Daft Punk, have decided that it was time to say goodbye.  The French dance music legends disclosed their decision to split up in a video released just this Monday, February 22.  

Titled Epilogue, their farewell video shows both of them donning their iconic robot helmets walking in a desert.  Soon, one of them realizes that he no longer wants to continue the journey and eventually explodes with the help of his friend.  By the 5:04 mark, an excerpt of Touch, a song from their last record Random Access Memories, enters the scene, giving the last few minutes of the video a hopeful yet bittersweet atmosphere. 

Got a bit teary-eyed while watching this and I’m not even a fan of Daft Punk! 😦

While I may not be a fan of Daft Punk, hearing the news still saddened me somehow.  After all, some of their earlier works accompany memories of my younger self like One More Time and Around the World, the song that introduced me to the duo.  I will always remember the time seeing Around the World on MTV often: I didn’t quite like it immediately, but it was so catchy that it would often get stuck in my head.  The music video, too, wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could not help but finish watching the entire thing! 

As years passed, I got acquainted with their music more mainly from the singles that they released like Harder Better Faster Stronger, Technologic, Derezzed, Digital Love, and their collaborative works Get Lucky, and Instant CrushSomething About Us, however, is their song that I’m most fond of.

Towards the end of the video, we see de Homem-Christo continue walking all alone into the sunset.  Is this indicative of his interest or plans to go on working in the music industry as a solo artist or somewhere behind the scenes?  Or is it merely a sign of him going to wherever his feet will carry him?  That is uncertain, but what is definite is that Daft Punk will be missed.  The art that they have created have left a big imprint not only on the dance music genre but to the whole music industry as a whole.  Not bad for these guys whose music was once considered as “daft punky thrash,” no?

The Shows Still Go On… Somehow

It’s not like I haven’t watched livestreams or pre-recorded studio shows with no audiences before, but I guess what makes digital concerts now seem different is having the feeling that this isn’t how it should be. 

Exactly seven years ago, last January 21, the French quartet Phoenix visited the Philippines for the very first time as part of their Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix Tour.  A couple of months before the concert, I was already thinking of what to wear on that night, the reason I’d write down on my leave form as to why I’d be absent for work on that day, when and where I would meet my friends, a plan on how I could possibly bump into the band hours before the concert, among many other things.  If it isn’t obvious enough for you still, I was so excited about the whole event; my plans went beyond just taking myself to the venue and not forgetting to bring my ticket with me.  Most of the time, this was how I would get ready for concerts.  Last year, however, I watched three shows, and they were absolutely not like the way I used to watch one.

Unless you have been living under a rock, 2020 was a year of tremendous and unprecedented changes.  The COVID-19 pandemic altered practically every aspect of our daily existence.  The live music scene naturally wasn’t spared from this; in fact, it was one of the most badly hit industries as holding physical concerts was no longer permitted.  But you know what they say about shows: They must go on.  Well, at least they did… virtually.

Indeed, technology plays a significant part in helping live shows survive.  It has enabled artists to bring concerts to the audience in the comfort of their homes and away from the crowds.  Watching online concerts actually has a lot of pros.  For starters, it saves people a lot of time: no more queuing, no more travelling to the venue, no more waiting for your companions to arrive, etc. 

Digital concerts are also way cheaper than physical concerts.  For example, when I watched the livestreams of Nothing But Thieves (NBT) last October, whose proceeds benefited the band’s crew, by the way, three unique shows cost only £28.  That is roughly ₽1,700, which is the equivalent of an average Gen Ad ticket (a.k.a. the farthest seat in a venue) here in the country.  On the other hand, when I watched the 20th anniversary show of Urbandub last December, it cost me only ₽500.  That’s just double the price of a bar gig.  And oh, Urbandub’s livestream (+ Q&A with the audience) was almost three hours long!  Another show that I watched was the late night concert of Miriam Bryant last June and it was streamed completely free.

Another positive point is that you get the best view of the stage every single time.  You no longer have to adjust your position to get a good view of the band or avoid tall people in the crowd.  There is no longer a need for you to endure watching the show from the screen of an inconsiderate person in front of you, recording everything in his/her phone either.  You also don’t have to deal with boisterous people or those who think that concerts are wild karaoke competitions. 

Finally, some concerts give multiple access.  In the case of NBT, for instance, all the sets were replayed and were still available two days after all of them had been aired.  It was perfect for those living in other time zones since some of the set times, when converted locally, fell on inconvenient hours.  As for the livestream of Urbandub, since it was done on FB live in a private group page, the video is still up until now.  Miriam Bryant’s video is also still available in TV4 Play’s website.

Online concerts may have numerous benefits, but it does have a few shortcomings.  First, it simply cannot deliver the right atmosphere.  The energy of the venue where thousands or even dozens of people are converged (if this is just a bar gig) already can make you excited—the play of lights, the buzzing of people while waiting for the lights to fade out, the appearance of the crew right after the opener ends his/her set, the turning off of the lights and the entrance of music to indicate that someone is about to set foot onstage, etc.  All of these things that spark the mood of a concert is either absent or scant in a livestream show.

The way you can express how thrilled you really are is likewise restrained during livestreams.  I remember before watching the first set of NBT, my companion and I turned off the lights and attached a speaker to the laptop.  When the show began, my companion, who was the real NBT fan, let out a controlled cheer.  She then looked at me and we both laughed.  It was just weird for her to scream at the top of her lungs at home unless she wanted the neighbors to think that something bad had happened, or at least disturb the other people staying in the other rooms. 

Finally, when you are at a live show, there is an exchange of energy between the artists and the audience: the more energy the audience radiates, the more the artist will be motivated as well and vice-versa.  However, since there is a barrier between the two, well, there isn’t just any exchange happening, is there?  At the beginning of one of the NBT streams, there was a part there where immediately after they played a song, there was just complete silence.  It was a bit awkward for me, and it made me think how odd that silence was.  Coincidentally, vocalist Conor Mason, commented how it felt weird for him, too.  He said, “Normally, we can tell what the reaction is by the crowd, so this is also very strange for us.”  He then proceeded to show what their guitarist Dom Craik made on the keyboard before the show: crowd noises to “inflate (Conor’s) ego.”

With the number of COVID-19 still on the rise in many countries, live performances like the ones we used to have still don’t have a clear future.  For now, while quarantines and social distancing are still in effect, drive-in concerts,  bubble concerts, performances to an audience-less venue, and most especially digital concerts may well be how live music can go on.