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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rebuilding the rights of starving music fans

Rebuilding the rights of starving music fans

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Fed up with a diet of Phnom Penh cover bands, a throng of contemporary

music enthusiasts headed out to witness some cutting edge new sounds.

Photo by: Vinh Dao

Punk wok: Beijing’s Rebuilding the Rights of Statues – Hua Dong (left), Ma Hui (rear) and Liu Min – turn up the heat at their gig at Chinese House last week.

IT'S not that I think the music scene in Phnom Penh is bland. It's just that if I hear the turgid caterwaul of yet another distorted electric guitar playing yet another appalling medley of middle-of-the-road American pap rock, I might just do something drastic. I might just defenestrate a Stratocaster.

OK. So I do think the music scene in Phnom Penh is bland.

Is it life in exile that makes Western expats hanker after the nostalgic sounds of The Eagles, Guns 'n' Roses, Santana, or Bon friggin' Jovi?

These white-bread Southeast Asian cover bands are a guilty pleasure, the sonic equivalent of tucking into fast food. And they leave you feeling just as bloated and ill.

But last Thursday night, lovers of alternative, or at least original, music had a rare chance to burn off a few calories of rage to the post-punk, post-industrial sounds of Beijing-based outfit Rebuilding the Rights of Statues.

On a hot, humid Phnom Penh night in a crowded room at Chinese House, the frenetic flurry of sound from this three-piece band came as a blast of fresh air. Hard up against the low-key stage, punters bounded and bounced off one another as singer/guitarist Hua Dong, bass player Liu Min and drummer Ma Hui powered through a set tight and percussive as machine-gun fire.

The sound and the fury was offset by numbers dripping with harmony vocals and the light breathiness of Liu Min's red melodica. And the red floor tom, set centre stage and flanked by the two guitarists, was belted frenetically by Hua Dong in one song in a kind of post-apocalyptic bossa nova.

And though the band does draw on the past - indeed, the trio point to their retro influences in the shorthand version of their name - their songs are all their own, albeit sung in bizarrely accented English.

Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (aka Re-TROS) is heavily influenced by the late 70s/early 80s sounds of The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, Wire, Gang of Four and Joy Division.

The cover art on their album Watch Out! Climate Has Changed, Fat Mum Rises... could have come straight from the design desk of Peter Saville at Factory Records, and their song Bela Lugosi's Back points a black nail-varnished Gothic finger straight to Peter Murphy of Bauhaus.

But the crystalline, edgy sounds of Hua Dong's Telecaster and the heavy throb of Liu Min's bass bring to mind more contemporary bands: The Strokes, Interpol - even The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Unfortunately, Re-TROS also borrow from the '80s a tendency to the slow, introspective, art-rock dirge, in numbers the band's set could well have done without. But it did allow Hua Dong a little breathing space from the sweaty, energetic ferocity of his vocal delivery.

It's punk. It's energy. It's the new sonic youth of Asia.

And on the subject of ferocity - how does a band in China even begin to perform a song like TV Show, with Liu Min's backing refrain "hang the police"?

It's a gob in the eye of that state's record of police brutality.

It's Johnny Rotten spitting out "God save the queen, the fascist regime" over again.

It's punk. It's energy. It's the new sonic youth of Asia.

And while the Pistols were never the world's most accomplished musicians (guitarist Steve Jones learnt to play on amphetamines using a Les Paul stolen from Mick Ronson at a David Bowie concert) it's attitude that gets people going every time - not virtuosity.

But as they moved effortlessly from the 4/4 format of punk to explore more complex time signatures, intricate rhythms and vocal melodies, Re-TROS also showed they were not afraid to push the boundaries of their genre.

The highly appreciative crowd drew them back for an encore.

Re-TROS so impressed legendary musician and producer Brian Eno (Talking Heads, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Devo, Coldplay, U2 ... should I go on?) when he came across them in a studio in Beijing that he took time out to collaborate with them on three tracks for their debut EP Cut Off!

Along with fellow Beijing punk outfit Carsick Cars, this band is one to watch. Do it online at www.myspace.com/rebuildingtherightsofstatues.

And just like after a good Sichuan hot pot, this punter left Chinese House hot and sweaty but wholly satisfied.

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