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Review: On Ngọt’s Newest Album, Urban Loneliness Lingers on Mellow Strings

Ngot’s latest album brilliantly captures the band’s most appealing quality: the ability to walk the fine line between playful brightness and bitter profundity.

Established in late 2013, Ngot started out with three members: Vu Dinh Trong Thang on vocals and guitar, Nguyen Hung Nam Anh on percussion, and Tran Binh Tuan on guitar. The band formed during at a time when rock music in Hanoi and Saigon was warming up to new sounds, with new bands shifting away from distorted guitars and experimenting with clean tones and more lyric-focused work.

This moment was characterized by the arrival of bands such as Blumato, which is still active today; Mimetals, led by Thang’s brother Vu Dinh Hung, also known as Hung M.O.X; and Quai Vat Ti Hon, a group formed by elder statesmen of the rock music scene in Hanoi and Saigon including Nguyen Cong Hai, an ex-member of Microwave, Le Quang Minh, the ex-drummer of one of Saigon’s very first rock band, Little Wings, and Nguyen Hong Long, Gat Tan Day’s former bassist.

At first, Ngot brought songs to live venues across Hanoi, and posted several recordings online. The band’s self-titled first album was released in 2016 thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Comprised of 10 songs, the album marks some of Ngot’s most characteristic work: 'Khong Lam Gi,' with its the clever use of repetition that conveys the dull banality of a routine life, or ‘Xanh,’ which laments lost love via the multiple meanings of the word xanh (which can translate to blue, green or youthful). The overall timbre of their debut album relied heavily on electronic guitar, laden with clean, sometimes distorted, short and succinct riffs, with a hint of waltz and folk music.

After several changes in their line up, the band currently makes music with four members, including Thang, Nam Anh, bassist Phan Viet Hoang, who joined in 2015, and Nguyen Chi Hung on guitar, who joined in 2017. Ngot’s second album, Ng'bthg, introduced different materials into their music, including percussion, melodica, banjo, acoustic guitar, choirs, handclaps, bell jingles and shakers, all while retaining Thang’s lyrical appeal. The echoes of Slavic folk music and waltz are more pronounced, and the lyrics have taken more of a storytelling route.

Their third and latest album, 3 (Tuyen Tap Nhac Ngot Moi Tre Soi Dong), doesn’t make a big impression upon first listen, at least not compared to previous albums' snappy, attention-catching and melodic riffs that urgently draw in listeners to their stories and points of contemplation. It does, however, foster enough of a sense of familiarity and strangeness to warrant a second listen. The more times I went through the album, the more I wanted to revisit, the more my feelings pointed me towards the conclusion that it might be the band’s best work so far.

The album’s opener, 'Mau (Den Trang),' nods to rock music through the generous use of power chords and distorted guitars. The song dwells on the writer’s nostalgic longing for the "colors" of the past. Rather than a romanticization of a bygone era, this longing is self-consciously rooted in a manifestation of an internal loss of innocence.

Interestingly, in the third verse, the song recites the first line of the chorus to Microwave’s 2005 song 'Tim Lai,' a popular song that has graced almost every university’s music events and the setlists of student cover bands due to its ruminations on friendship. 'Tim Lai' deals with a similar theme; the loss of companionship simultaneously corresponds with losing a part of oneself, and thus feeding the constant need to relive the past.

For Ngot, innocence seems to takes center stage, exemplified by the urge to “search for the colors [they] once saw when [they] first learn to look.” This theme reoccurs in '(Be),' the 11th song on the album, which was written as a string of encouragement given to a child who is insecure when seeing people who are taller and bigger than them. '(Be)' elaborates on how seemingly small things can nurture, how big trees were once tiny and how tall people, when they look at children, also wish to be small like them. As the song moves towards the end, it becomes clear that the attempt to comfort brings out a tinge of regret inside the person giving comfort.

Listeners familiar with Ngot’s previous work might notice a significant shift in melody and tone compared to their first two albums. The band’s folk and waltz influences are now more subtle, paving the way for funky strumming and blues-infused guitar licks. The emphasis on the electronic guitar is lessened, reserving space for bass runs and piano intros. These changes create more layers of contrast and differences for Ngot to play with.

‘Meu Mao (T.T)’ makes for a nice transition from the opener, when the tempo slows down with guitar pickings sprinkled throughout. The song starts with discussions of everyday life scenarios when it seems like the world is conspiring against our protagonist and transitions to accepting the fact that whenever one sheds a tear, there is somebody somewhere else who is laughing. Laid beneath a background of delayed, clean and mellow guitar tones, the song is a laid-back, cheeky play of ironies with a lingering sadness.

While the first four songs are immersed in personal exchanges and pondering, ‘Chuong Bao Thuc (Sang Roi)’ yanks one out of the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness and paints an urban landscape in which these thoughts are contained. Switching the electronic guitar for the acoustic in the intro, the thumping hurriedness of the guitar strumming and fast percussion creates a sense of constant movement, one that resembles a city street, an endless string of thoughts — chords chase one another the way vehicles and thoughts also do. The verses describe different snippets of lives at night in half-fragmented, half-connected, half-personal, half-observant lines before the chorus announces that the alarm clock means morning has come. While the song replicates the rhythm of public life, the vocal switch to a constant whispering brings an eerie quiet to this landscape as if one is sitting inside a silent bus while moving through a busy street.

The urban cityscape reoccurs in ‘Chuyen Kenh (San Pham Nay Khong Phai La Thuoc),’ which delves into the narrator's relationship with television. Far from a reductionist commentary often made about human’s attachment to the screen, Ngot’s exploration is mostly self-directed, with a both satiric and empathetic attitude. At times, the song seems to suggest that television, or media in general, is as much a reflection of ourselves as it is a stage. Some of Thang’s characteristic wordplay is featured in the song, notably the spoonerism between thí sinh đố kỵ (jealous contestants) and ký sinh đô thị (urban parasites). ‘Het Thoi’ picks up on this, expressing an onlooker’s sympathy for a famous singer whose peak has passed before turning the very same commentary to the songwriter himself, whose voice will one day be “cocooned by spider webs.”

Loneliness is a constant theme that keeps coming back to me again and again during the album, whether it is in the form of the emptiness caused by lost love or companionship, the more subtle moments of feeling isolated in a crowded place, or even deliberate solitude.

‘(Toi) Di Tru Dong’ is a plea for removing oneself from city life and its “urban pastimes” and ambitions, and the eventual meaninglessness of them all without the company of a loved one. ‘Ve Di Thien Duong (Mot Chieu)’ brings this yearning for a lost companion to another extreme, lamenting a fantasy that one day two lovers can afford "listening to the flower of impermanence, on the airport's bench, two one-way tickets to heaven."

The awful emptiness in 'Chuong Bao Thuc (Sang Roi)' and '(Sau Day La) Du Bao Thoi Tiet (Cho Cac Vung Vao Ngay Mai)' is an example of where this loneliness is felt rather than expressed. Stripped-down to only somber acoustic guitar pickings and violin, '(Sau Day La) Du Bao Thoi Tiet (Cho Cac Vung Vao Ngay Mai)' is a funereal piece. Imitating a TV weather presenter, each verse narrates a chain of one event that leads to another, starting from water, clouds and rain to the presenter addressing himself. The second verse follows, with the presenter now addressing the viewers, and in the third verse, the narration switches back to soil, trees and flowers, then ends on a heartbreakingly honest note.

“Đất sẽ sinh ra cây (The soil will bear trees)

Cây sẽ sinh ra hoa (Trees will bear flowers)

Hoa sẽ sinh ra quả chín (Flowers will bear ripe fruits)

Chúng sẽ nuôi thân ta (They will nurture our bodies)

Ta đã sinh ra nhà (We created houses)

Ta đã sinh ra vườn (We created gardens)

Ta đã sinh ra đạn súng (We created bullets and guns)

Ta sát sinh ra nhau. (We murdered to create ourselves).”

Ngot constantly oscillates between distancing themselves from a topic and redirecting it to a personal realm, weaving both cheeky wordplay and vulnerable confessions into their material while still maintaining an ear-pleasing harmony. ‘Lan Cuoi (Di Ben Em Xot Xa Nguoi Oi)’ talks about the well-worn topic of lost love and heartbreak; however, the song's raw emotions and vulnerability make the connection it stirs in people distinctive. Starting from just piano runs, the song keeps adding another layer of instruments after each part, first with the bass guitar, before the acoustic strumming joins in with a few notes on the electronic guitar, and then the melodica solo in the bridge. The second time the chorus arrives, the song breaks into high volume and full-fledged distortion and Thang's vocal break into screams, serving as a brilliant conduit for the torn emotion between acceptance and longing. 'Nut (Doi Chan Doi Tay Doi Mat Trai Tim)' follows up and elaborates on this torn, broken state with positivity. The song muses about treasuring the wounds we all have, as they might have always been a part of our identity.

The album would have made for a happy-go-lucky conclusion if it has ended there. '3', however, concludes on a different note — neither positive nor pessimistic — but perhaps an embrace of both. Sound-wise, 'Ru Minh' is a nod to folk lullabies, with comforting stripped-down guitar pickings throughout the song, yet the prose is as comforting as it is sad. Thang begins asking if 'con' (the identifier for a child) remembers when it's been so easy for him to be lulled to sleep, but then suddenly the “storks flew away” and the “sheep left,” leaving him hanging, singing himself to sleep.

Perhaps this is what sweetness is about (Ngot is translated to sweet; though the band once said they never think much about the name), the heightened rush of energy that the taste brings to one’s palate, but also the hanging emptiness that lasts after the sugar has done its job — it comforts, but its presence lingers. 

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