Subsonic Eye – ‘All Around You’ review: Singapore indie rockers fend off urban alienation
Written by ABR on 18/09/2023
Subsonic Eye have grown up. The Singaporean indie rock band’s nuanced sound is the fruit of a graceful coming-of-age, seeds of which first took root in the late 2010s. Originally beginning with swirling dream pop and anthems of adolescent angst on their first two records ‘Strawberry Feels’ and ‘Dive Into’, the band slowly moved from hazy shoegaze to a headier clarity on the warm, sprawling ‘Nature of Things’. A record that focused on concise songwriting and displayed a newfound stylistic versatility, it was NME’s Best Asian Album of 2021.
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On fourth album ‘All Around You’, that concision remains at the center of Subsonic Eye’s sound: Daniel Borces and Jared Lim deliver tight guitar interplay; drummer Lucas Tee hits fast and sure while bassist (and newest member) Sam Venditti turns out fluid, propulsive grooves. It’s the outlook that differs this time round: while ‘Nature of Things’ approached nature with a sense of wide-eyed wonder and self-discovery, ‘All Around You’ is a wearier affair. Revisiting the urban melancholia of their earlier material, the record reorients their identities, under the pressures of adult life, back to city drear.
Opener ‘Performative’ embodies this tone shift. Initially, the band seem to reprise ‘Nature Of Things’’ warm, glowing introduction, gently fading into the mix with a wash of feedback, chimes, and cymbals. Then, vocalist Nur Wahidah quickly interrupts the prospect of pastoral idealism with harsh, urban monotony: “Hands outstretched, now I don’t even know if it’s working better anymore.” Soon, over a ritualistic groove, she rattles off urban stressors, as if going through a checklist: “Ticking boxes, charging laptops, separating causes from ourselves.”
Though that grey malaise is the dominant colour of ‘All Around You’, especially its first half, the record is also the band’s most exhilarating material to date. Their first full-length release on emo institution Topshelf Records, the album’s urgent, snappy guitar lines and acute sense of pop melody feel right at home on the label. On ‘Nature of Things’, Wahidah came into her own as a dynamic vocalist, her lyrics mirroring both Singaporean life and her own ecological anxiety. On ‘All Around You’, her delivery is commanding, moving from dreamy, drifting drawls, to fragile whispers and biting spoken word.
Topped with the band’s angular rhythms and crunchy distortion tones, a familiar list of references quickly emerges: contemporaries in Snail Mail and Alvvays-esque indie-pop; ’90s stalwarts like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth; cult heroes like Yo La Tengo and Life Without Buildings. Yet, the quintet never sound like a caricature of their influences, nor faceless messengers of generalised angst.
Even when steeped in adulthood’s anxious desperation, ‘All Around You’s portraits of urban life are vibrant and sensitive. Wahidah moves nimbly between moods: at times helpless, at times hopeful. ‘Circle’ is about the Sisyphean task of making connections, while ‘Bug In Spring’ poetically meditates on fleeting encounters and blind trust. And on the propulsive highlight ‘J-O-B’ she cathartically rants against ever-growing, careerist expectations to be “a better person / a better citizen / a better student / a better friend.”
When Subsonic Eye move away from the big issues, however, their collective maturity shows. On ‘What I Meant’, the band zoom into a microscopic moment of regret: “That’s not what I said / Please reel it in now, I can’t justify,” Wahidah gently sings. Whereas a younger Subsonic Eye would probably have drowned the sentiment in an ocean of noise, they now leave the arrangement to simmer, allowing its melody to build into a heartbreaking refrain. When the drums melt into the fuzzed-out lo-fi of the Notwist-esque ‘Pick Up The Phone’, the band’s downcast intimacy – a mode they frequently explored in their bedroom pop days – now proves haunting.
Subsonic Eye manage a brilliant balancing act on the record’s first act, but its latter half also occasionally feels derivative. Now assured of their signature style, the band at times fall victim to the record’s mid-tempo pace. ‘Tender’ and ‘Machine’, in particular, feel out of place, the former’s under-developed 3/4 groove cresting too predictably, while ‘Machine’ buries its toplines underneath a familiar, plodding groove.
Yet, ‘All Around You’ shows development. Its title is apt: the band’s introverted sentiments now carry a perceptive weight, less adolescent navel-gazing and more laments grounded in experience and observation. On the stomping finish of ‘Everything’, Wahidah returns to her muse of nature, interrogating attitudes towards renewal and control: “Does it scare us that no matter how much we eliminate tall grass it grows back wilder than ever? No matter how much we thought we knew about the world, she proves us wrong time and time again?”
Despite the gloom, Subsonic Eye punctuate ‘All Around You’ with a radiant lightness. In the choppy tides of early adulthood, the band aren’t surrendering to disillusion but finding ways to reconcile with their urban-bound anxiety. Amid the swells of ‘Yearning’, a paean to both nature’s beauty and an appeal for comfort, Wahidah eventually lands on an acquiescent note: “You woke me from my slumber / I fall down on my knees / basking in your warm light / It’s how I came to be.” Choosing grounded gratitude over nihilism, Subsonic Eye establish for themselves a fine line of resistance and find beauty amid all of life’s challenges along the way.
- Release date: September 13
- Record label: Topshelf Records
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