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On Sangvar Day and The Journey of The Riff



On Sangvar Day and The Journey of The Riff

by Sean 'Calvin' Barrett


pic - Julien Quentin

Classroom desks surrounded by white walls and textbooks were not what I expected to see when Sangvar Day opened the doors to their practice room. True to their French roots and their French employers, however, the René Descartes School music room is where, once or twice a week, the Sangvar magic happens. Seated at a desk with my notebook, I felt as though I was taking notes on a musical lecture of Applied Hard Rock. Because of the location of the room, there was no alcohol allowed during practice - an alien concept which I found both confusing and frightening. The atmosphere stood in stark contrast to where I first saw them 'bring it'.

At Sharky Bar, nearly two years ago, Sangvar Day consisted of three musicians, none of whom sang. Committed to writing and performing original, rocking songs though they were (and still are), it felt like different parts of a stew were boiling in different pans, yet to coalesce into the meaty, chunky goodness they now deliver. This show was the first time they would open for Splitter (a band with a vocalist whose body I inhabit as of this writing), but not the last. The reason for venues making this pairing is an understandable one: in both band’s cases, it is all about The Riff. The Riff is at the center. All other elements of their songs exist in service of The Riff and are built around It.

With The Riff on it's pedestal, Sangvar Day moved forward through a couple of line-up changes, both of which being for the better. First, they brought on board Robin, an Italian vocalist and guitarist whose high-energy flavor fused instantly into their sound and brought it up to the next level. Just this past month, his contribution won him 2nd Best Individual Performer at the 2014 Battle Of The Bands. He does not stand still. For as much as he has brought to the table with his vocals, lyrics, and lead guitar parts, one could imagine there being some grumbling amongst his all-French bandmates about having to switch to English for efficient communication - presumably most or all of the French they speak in his presence is insulting... but I digress.


pic - Julien Quentin

The next move in the evolution of their sound was to replace their re-patriated bassist. I don’t remember anything about him one way or the other, which leads me to conclude he was unremarkable (though, in fairness, my memory may have been affected by the beer at the venue). After quite bravely playing a bass-less show (again, Sharky’s with Splitter), they were fortunate enough to stumble upon Matthew, a spider-handed jazz-guitarist-turned-bassist who goes above and beyond the call of duty. Where most bassists would ape the guitar part, albeit more simply, Matthew’s fingers dance all over the place, filling out the empty space in the rhythm section and positioning the low end squarely in the lead. Some songs find him finger-tapping with both hands on the fretboard and, seriously, name one bassist who does that. In spite of his jazz background, his style of playing and position in the band allows them to bring 'The Funk'.

To go wherever The Riff, in Its infinite wisdom, takes you requires a lot of horsepower in the rhythmic engine. Julien, their original and current drummer, has this in spades. Much like their bassist, Julien also has a background in jazz which shines through in his subtler ghost-note-hitting moments. Dynamically moving with the song, this changes into atavistic pulverizing with a ride cymbal larger than a pizza (20”/50.5 cm, to be exact). His playing is as unpredictable as the songs are, sometimes soft and restrained, sometimes aggressively energetic. What is predictable is its tightness, even in 7/8 and other odd musical time signatures.

Closest to the center of Sangvar is founder/main-composer/Servant of The Riff, Julian (of course, none of them can be in the exact center as that space is occupied by The Riff), who also makes use of several pedals for his guitar-tone and other more ambient/textural elements. Seeing them live, it’s pretty observable that Sangvar Day is largely his vision and brainchild. The excitement and joie de vivre with which he jumps and head-bangs in time, his forays bouncing around in the audience while playing, and his telegraphing of changes betray this to a trained(-ish) eye. His position doesn’t go to his head, however. Recognizing the creativity of those he works with, he’s socialistically denounced some of his leadership role in order to let new ideas into this group endeavor. 
 
The years of change and growth in their sound are now made manifest in the form of a six-song EP. On it, you will find funky rhythms, guitar leads with bluesy swagger, atmospheric tones, as well as the more driven hard-rock sections which make their live shows so memorable (if you can listen to Queen, track 4, without moving, you are an inanimate object). The Riff is a mysterious, elusive being who has taken this band to many, many places. All of these places are dived into with both (all eight?) feet resulting in a post-modern potpourri of a lot of what makes Rock ‘n’ Roll so wonderful.


While this EP is a great thing on its own, it is hard to ignore the context in which it takes place. They certainly don’t: the opening track, Blood and Salt, deals, lyrically, with the senseless violence that has plagued this country in recent history: 

We run and run/ ten people behind us/they’ve got the guns/Bullets/fly in the air/they’ve just hit my sister

Mekong Drums, track 3, tackles the issue of the impact of technology on the traditional Cambodian way of life: 

Don’t matter/the fish/nor your land/but all you gotta do is plug this in/and beautiful scenes/from a big flat screen/and flashing lights/in your only room/free of charge
pic: Julien Quentin
The EP’s closer, Rubber, is a narrative based around the environmental destruction which takes place in these rain forests and peoples’ willing betrayal of that:

Like the sun/still burning through the clouds/our bond was invincible/but was it a lie or the truth?/I can see it with my own eyes/how you exchanged our sacred land

Though Robin, the lyricist, is an outsider to this country, he is not writing these songs with beard-stroking philosophical detachment; he’s fucking pissed. One can read it in the lyrics, hear it in the vocal delivery, and see it in live performances.

Even though music of this sort won’t be found on Cambodian radio or television, it will be found in a lot of Cambodian hearts. Where Jimi Hendrix and The Doors once stood as an influence on Khmer rock, there now stand Rage Against The Machine and Slayer. Though underground, what my dear sainted mother refers to as “that screaming music” is having a tremendous impact on people all throughout South East Asia. The most internationally recognized example of this would be the incredible Singaporean grindcore act, Wormrot:


This is something Sangvar Day are able to tap into. One need look no further than a Phnom Penh-based heavy rock show to see what I’m talking about. While Metal/Hard Rock/”that screaming music” began in the English-speaking world, every mosh pit I’ve seen or participated in here has comprised of virtually all Khmer folk. At the risk of sounding like a dumb white guy (though that ship may have long-ago sailed), my theory is that it is largely to do with cultural suppression of rage as an acceptable human emotion.

In addition to making sense in a Cambodian context, these dudes are also very plugged into the French community here, musically connecting with their friends, co-workers, and students. Between this and practicing at their school, these worlds are, for them, not separate whatsoever. As an English teacher and vocalist, none of my students have, to the best of my knowledge, witnessed me yelling about chaos (only once have I run into a university pupil while moshing in civilian clothing at a Sliten6ix show, which was weird enough) but, maybe, if they were there when, at yet another Sharky Bar Sangvar Day/Splitter show, I accidentally cut my hand on a microphone and non-accidentally smeared the blood across my dress and face, they would have feared and obeyed me more. Anyway, once again, I digress. 
 
Much as French-Khmer women tend to be stunningly gorgeous, this fusion of blues, rock, jazz, and the influence of local surroundings makes for some beautifully interesting tunes. This Sangvar Day EP stands as a snapshot in time of four talented and inspired musicians in the never-ending process of growing, changing, evolving, becoming. Keep an eye on their live shows to see just where the hell they’ll go next.

All Hail The Riff,

Sean 'Calvin' Barrett

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