Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The album that drove the Filipino alt-rock revolution

Rivermaya (1994)
BMG Pilipinas

While most Pinoy rock bands in 1994 kept low profiles in the underground music scene, Rivermaya decided to take a chance by releasing a record under a major label.

The success obtained that year was only just the beginning.

There's still some confusion (for me, at least) as to how Rivermaya was formed. Some sources say that managers Lizza Nakpil and Chito Roño were responsible for putting the band together. Others suggest that Nakpil and Roño discovered Rivermaya after some demos by the band had been sent to various record companies. Whatever the case, the fact that keyboardist Rico Blanco was the one writing the catchy hits should have done a fairly good job of keeping Rivermaya away from the manufactured music stereotypes.

Rivermaya's self-titled debut could be seen as many things. In some ways, it was a window into their future. The album is a hodgepodge of different sounds - from the hard-edged "Revolution" to the ballad "20 Million" to the country-influenced "Gravity" - just as the band itself would later go into different musical phases. In other ways, Rivermaya is a mirror image of what was going on in North American rock with the grunge and alternative era. The band's vocalist at the time, Francisco Mañalac (known by many as "Bamboo"), even sported the same bald head as The Smashing Pumpkin's Billy Corgan. Songs like "Ground" were unmistakably influenced by grunge rock. Most importantly, however, Rivermaya's first record showed that rock music (in a country where pop music was "in") could be popular and cool while remaining original and credible at the same time.

Bamboo's voice is difficult to ignore. It's as versatile as the songs themselves. Even in songs that at first appear to border on being so mellow it's boring, Bamboo's voice adds nuances you wouldn't expect. One case in point is the way he sings the outstretched "heh-heh-haaate" in "Bring Me Down".

Meanwhile, it's easy to see how the band's first single ever, "Ulan" (Rain) became such an instant hit. The beginning of the song sounds like someone's changing the dial to a radio before finally coming across a station that is about to play a song by...guess? Blanco not only shows his stuff here through the songwriting but by the little keyboard solo he does at the bridge. He churns out a few dissonant chords and they actually sound nice.

I think I'd have to vote "214" as the best track on this album. I'm not a big fan of pop-rock ballads but this one's so damn catchy I'll have to make it an exception.

"Awit Ng Kabataan" (The Song of the Youth) is runner-up for best track. The way Bamboo's voice goes from calm to shouty without making the shouting headache-inducing like so many who attempt to do the same thing is a feat in itself.

At first listen, the album doesn't seem all that extraordinary. As mentioned before, the constant change in sound throughout could make you wonder if Rivermaya was being marketed to please everyone or if they were simply being versatile because that's who they really were. During this time, people were still comparing them to the Eraserheads, a band that had been around a little longer than Rivermaya and which had already established a loyal following. But unlike The Eraserheads (who mainly stuck to mellow, subtle pop-rock), Rivermaya went in many different directions with their music.

Another reason I felt underwhelmed listening to the album the first time around is because the music I was hearing was music I haven't really touched since I was in junior high. But when I took the songs at face value, I started to find more things worth praising. And when I remember the context of the album's release, I can't help but appreciate the effort even more. "Revolution", for example, isn't my cup of tea but hearing the ensemble of guitarist Perfecto de Castro, bassist Nathan Azarcon, drummer Mark Escueta, and Bamboo - it's amazing how such a classic rock sound was finally shouting out from a country that had, up to that point, a tendency to silence the rockers.

Ulan (Rain) - Rivermaya
214 - Rivermaya
Awit ng Kabataan (Song of the Youth) - Rivermaya


Admin said...

Thank you for taking time out to do all this Kristina. I just wanna say that after so many years, and so many trials, im very very happy that the band is NOT going to be the same :) Were looking forward to making much more music in the coming years.

- mark escueta

Kristina said...

Hi Mark,

Wow! Is this really you? If so, I'm so honoured you took the time to read and comment on what I've had to say so far.

And as someone who just discovered your music mere months ago, I'm not quite in the same mind frame as those who have been following the band since the beginning (ie. the Rico vs. Bamboo debate...I think both were great in their own ways). I'm still very crushed about Rico's depature but I'm eager to see what Rivermaya has in store for the future.