Azmyl Yunor – ‘John Bangi Blues’ review: A no-frills comeback from Malaysia’s veteran troubadour

The singer-songwriter delivers blistering commentary on the “Middle Malaysia” experience on his fourth record

Azmyl Yunor is back.

Not that the omnipresent troubadour ever left. Unlike others who blitz through seasons and fizzle out without a trace, Azmyl has plugged away for the last two decades, never turning down any stage that would have him, from brightly lit malls to watering holes across the South China Sea.

Azmyl is not back because he’s been away, but he’s made a return to form. ‘John Bangi Blues’, his fourth full album, is in many ways, the proper sequel to his 2005 lo-fi EP ‘Tenets’. The last 15 years has seen him on journey both sonic and literal, exploring the possibilities of acoustic pop (‘Warga) and Springsteen-style big band rock (‘Wilayah’ and ‘Was Was’) while moving back from Australia to the Klang Valley and now settling in Bangi. He has come full circle to where he was meant to be: the position of working-class folk hero who exalts the everyman and rallies against inequality and injustice through the sear of twang and blues.

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When Bob Dylan went electric in 1965, rock ’n’ roll lore has it that folk singer Pete Seeger wanted to take a hatchet to the power cables. The story may be apocryphal, but it’s what comes to mind on ‘John Bangi Blues’: Though Azmyl still finds himself unable to drop his Telecaster, he’s trimmed the sonic fat. Gone are the sweetened licks, cooing saxophones and keyboard twinkles, replaced by a single dirty tone of his electric guitar and the no-frills backbone of Kristopher Chong (Salammusik) on bass and Ammar Khairi (The Maharajah Commission) on drums.

Fiery opener ‘Penghasut Blues’ blows the doors open with what sounds like a bastardised marriage between Muddy Waters and the Sex Pistols. It sets the tone for the record, which Azmyl has described as a “commentary on life on the peripheries of Middle Malaysia”, with its raw power and lyrics that shuffle between satirical humour and a stiff middle finger. There is an almost righteous rage to the way Azmyl attacks these songs, like a furious vagabond prowling up and down Persiaran Utara, stomping through squalid streets and proclaiming the ‘good and bad news’.

Even when Azmyl dips into his pop sensibilities on the first three-quarters of ‘I Don’t Wanna Buy Anything Today’, he does so with indignation, telling marketers to “get out of his face unless they want to kiss his shoe”. The rebel folk of ‘It’s Not Easy’ summons the ghost of Woody Guthrie with its bouncy country lick as Azmyl hopefully encourages us to “wave goodbye to the miseries of yesteryears”. This is what makes Azmyl unique: how he can balance the profane and the learned, the anger and satire – and deliver a record that still bubbles with some hope and enthusiasm.

It’s fitting that nestled at the heart of ‘John Bangi Blues’ is an ode to most guitarists’ first guitar in these parts: the cheap ‘Kapuk’ that sits on the shelves of so many sundry shops. Azmyl has shaved off the clunk of his last two records, ending up with the two things that he started with: his guitar and some tunes. Unburdened by the thoughts and opinions of those around him, Azmyl seems to be having fun making music on his own terms again. No wonder, then, that ‘John Bangi Blues’ stands in his canon as one of his best records to date.

Details

Azmyl Yunor Malaysia album 2020 John Bangi Blues
  • Release date: September 16 (digital), September 26 (CD)
  • Record label: Independent
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