Theme and variations: A review of Tom’s Story’s debut album (2016)

One of the best performances your correspondent has ever witnessed in the annual Silent Film Festival at Shangri-la Plaza was that of a post-rock band doing the score to Tomu Uchida’s 1933 proto-noir film Keisatsukan (Policeman), to coincide with the film’s 80th anniversary. The band playing then was an ensemble called Pulso, and it was quite impressive at the time. Since then, I learned of another band that was making some good buzz in the local independent musical landscape. [1]

When Tom’s Story released its much-awaited record, the biggest “what if” I had was whether the young band was ready to do something of the scale of Keisatsukan, a 120-minute film about two friends whose destinies grew apart. It would take some time, and require a little help from friends (as they did at the album launch last weekend), but I am convinced they could. Their debut record, which boosts my case in its album art by using a paper origami crane (!) on the cover, features two things that would make listening to them worthwhile both in Shangri-la and beyond: memorable musical themes and impressive musicianship.

The opening tunes, “Anchor” and the conjoined tracks “Dream/Catcher” are good examples of how the band are able to construct memorable musical themes. For instance, the three notes opening “Anchor” introduces a series of variations done in different rhythmic patterns that provide an energetic start to the record, all while we hear the notes recur occasionally as ambient sounds.

The musicianship on this record is not too shabby either. The well-practiced way in which the three members of the band performed on the record very adequately echoes their live musicianship. My honest attempt in trying to figure out where they fell short, sadly, fell short. It will take time before I figure something out, other than the possibility that these songs all seem to sound the same. [2]

This was because I sensed that Tom’s Story was offering us an implicit song cycle. The two clues was the aforementioned ambient recurring theme, and that the fan favorite “Mugatu” ended with those three notes. This forty-two minute record might be offering a newer twist upon a “theme and variations” work that is familiar to habitues of classical music.

Such a coherence lends itself to the possibility of the band working on something like a silent film. Here, it is crucial to operate on thematic patterns and “tropes” that allow people to connect with the story of the film not only through images and words (if any) but also with what they hear. In a sense, accompanying a silent film gives one the role of “narrator,” and narrative works as much on recognizable linguistic patterns as the “stuff” of the story.

But back to the album. As mentioned, it was a challenge finding out where they could improve. On balance, they could do with a little more complexity where needed, if only to take their sound to the next level. That having been said, I suggest Tom’s Story would be able to meet the challenges of scoring a silent film. And indeed, I suggest that there’s a whole community out there who are ready, perhaps willing, and definitely able to do it.

For now, though, I’d be happy to recommend Tom’s Story’s album, and for those who have seen Keisatsukan, I invite you to imagine the record accompanying some key scenes in the film. “Mugatu” and the last twenty minutes or so of the film would be an obvious one.

Tom’s Story’s debut record is available through A Spur of the Moment Project or from their Bandcamp page.

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Notes

[1] Following Itos Ledesma’s critique of the idea of a unified “musical scene,” I prefer to use the word “landscape.” This is inspired by Mark Barrett, OSB’s use of the term “landscape” to refer to the self, and the metaphor amply fits what I see as how local music is sprawling, with distinct spots, peaks, and valleys, etc.

[2] Of course not.

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