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Encyclopedia Musica: Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế By Rắn Cạp Đuôi
James Gui , July 22nd, 2021 08:14

Following their 2019 EP Degradation, the Vietnamese collective return with a sweeping and wonderfully sensuous LP that succeeds in sounding genuinely new, finds James Gui

“We’re releasing an album in Berlin on a Berlin label soon. Because we’re trendy,” foretold Rắn Cạp Đuôi Collective member Zach Sch in an interview with Shanghai Community Radio back in March. A few months later, the prophecy has been fulfilled. RCĐ’s latest foray into experimental electronics is out now on Subtext Recordings, titled Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế (a bit of Vietnamese wordplay that translates to “sleeping through the apocalypse”). 

For the uninitiated, RCĐ is a Saigon-based collective of multi-instrumentalists, producers, and visual artists. You wouldn’t know it from listening to this record, but their live act is closer to Black Midi than Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re also a self-described “meme club” and a “tin teardrop” – the Captain Beefheart reference an indication of what sorts of memes they peddle in. But make no mistake: RCĐ are dead serious about their mission to “make new music”, at least to their ears.

It’s an age-old dilemma, one that only gets more tricky as time marches on. How can artists innovate, when it seems like everything’s already been done? Novelists like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon tackled this problem in their own artistic domain by writing what Edward Mendelson called “encyclopedic novels”, behemoths that attempted to synthesize knowledge, culture, and allusions across scientific and creative disciplines. And here, RCĐ have also taken the encyclopedic approach, melding sounds across genres and cultures to create a richly pleasurable chunk of experimental music. 

Each member of the collective brings something different to the RCĐ encyclopedia. Phạm Thế Vũ is influenced by the traditional, whether that’s Vietnamese folk music or American Primitivism. Đỗ Tấn Sĩ has the pop side of things on lock when it comes to Vietnamese culture, while also being influenced by hip hop. Zach Sch brings his jazz chops to the fore when drumming with the band live and takes hints from Otomo Yoshihide’s turntablism for his production work. Their eclecticism shines through on this record: shrill kèn bầu tones brush up against clouds of granular synthesis; warehouse-ready kick drums blast through shrouds of drone.

Producing most of these tracks after the passing of his father, Zach Sch balances optimism with catharsis, humour with solemnity. ‘Images’ initiates the listener with a heavenly choral sample that breaks down into a haunting club rhythm featuring Phạm’s voice chopped up into an unintelligible mantra. The following track ‘Eri Eri Eri Eri Eri Rema Rema Rema Rema Rema’ is even more destructured, immediately tossing a dense kitchen sink of samples at the listener. I’m reminded of Ground Zero’s Revolutionary Pekinese Opera Ver 1.28 in its erratic toggling between samples of traditional music and noisier sounds; here, RCĐ have thrown heavy-hitting club music into the mix as well. Rhythm here only exists in tiny microcosms that overlap occasionally, if at all. 

The chaos of ‘Eri’ gives way to the subdued contemplation of ‘Distant people’, a dreamlike meditation in three vignettes. That peaceful emotionality doesn’t last long, however, as the triptych ends with a spasmodic microrhythm layered atop a 7/8 synth loop. ‘Mực nang’ makes another nod to Ground Zero with a sample of a Korean chant that disintegrates (or rather, degrades) into a wall of noise that recalls RCĐ’s 2019 Degradation EP. It’s the darkest track on the record, filled with a solemn despair.

Of course, the tricksters who released a track called ‘Feet Pics Plez’ (which, by the way, slaps) for $4.20 USD on Bandcamp aren’t ones to linger on darkness. Phạm makes another vocal cameo in the beginning of ‘Infinite’, this time intelligible and appearing to talk about sweet bread in an absurdist non-sequitur. An early version of the track opened their livestream performance for United We Stream Asia, but the version on this record is clubbier and punchier. 

One might wonder why Ecco2k is listed as an influence on the press release for this record; I certainly did before I heard ‘Aztec Glue’. Its introduction is pure drainer bliss, icy chipmunk vocal samples drenched in reverb. After about a minute, they drop unceremoniously back to Earth, blasting us with a hard-hitting club banger that will probably leave the dancefloor lurching at the next Nhac Gay rave. ‘Denial and caves’ is the soundtrack to the post-rave comedown, fluttering arpeggios soaring above a droning two-chord progression.

Completing the spectrum of emotion on this record, the closing track ‘Đme giựt mồng’ is an absolute tearjerker. Washed out saxophone wails as aching chords reminiscent of A Winged Victory For the Sullen provide occasion for catharsis. A thick, bass-heavy kick spars with bells in a ceremonial dirge. Phạm’s voice makes a final appearance, reciting a nonsense poem consisting of Từ Hán Việt, or loanwords from literary Chinese.

Considering its density of sound and complexity of feeling, it’s a wonder that Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế is only twenty-seven minutes long. Each musical idea lingers only as long as it needs to. RCĐ gestures at their encyclopedia these little bits of musical synecdoche: a pointillistic sweep here summoning Curtis Roads, a dembow rhythm there recalling Shabba Ranks. Like the V-2 rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow, these moments serve to illustrate a greater whole: in Pynchon’s case, the destructive capability of twentieth century mathematics and engineering, and for RCĐ the vast range of musical knowledge that the internet has made widely available.

Depending on whom you ask, RCĐ began in either 2012, 2014, or 2015. They also have multiple ‘debuts’; both Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế and Degradation have been named as such by different outlets. The enigma behind the group of rotating individuals may be part of their appeal, and certainly reminds me of avant-garde groups like Boredoms, Les Rallizes Dénudés, and Ground Zero before them. But where Boredoms slapped electronic effects onto their monumental jam sessions and Ground Zero used electronic samplers as a part of their live act, RCĐ are charting a different course altogether, taking their live instruments and encyclopedic influences into Ableton as raw material to create something new. And Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế is a step towards that future, a hopeful reminder that there is so much more music to be made.