Iqbal M. merges tight musicianship with snarky, in-your-face commentary. His ‘crazy man’ persona rarely loses its confrontational appeal in recording, and his band’s latest album is no different.
GENRE: INDIE ROCK / ALTERNATIVE ROCK / FOLK PUNK / POST PUNK LABEL: LUNCAI EMAS SND BHD
Punk is a word thrown around a lot to describe such a huge range of music. Often it's attributed to the down-strumming aggression of bands like The Ramones. Sometimes, it's the anti-establishment, anarchic chaos of The Sex Pistols. Other times, especially if you add the word ‘post’, it's reserved for the weird, audacious or indefinable like The Slits, Protomartyr or The Raincoats. But at the heart of punk is primal sincerity - send your message straight, fuck the flowers and fruit baskets.
If you've seen an Iqbal M performance, you would have seen that sincerity. Cloaked in his costume consisting of mascara and a white sheet to give him a ghostly appearance, Muhammad Iqbal Othman, lead singer of the band that shares his name, talks to you straight. His lyrics are street poetry with truths that doesn't take a literature background to decipher. He makes you question that maybe the ‘crazy man’ (as the media, and certain groups of people are known to call him), knows something we don't.
But Iqbal M is not punk rock- not really. They're punk at heart, but soundwise, they're nebulous. People have often called them indie, even when the band consisted of just the man that started it all, Iqbal. Back in 2010 when he released his mini album Tembak Tepat, Iqbal didn't really have a full band yet. But even from then, like in the titular track (which was featured in a critically acclaimed Malaysian thriller back in 2018, One Two Jaga, produced by Bront Palarae and directed by Nam Ron), you could sense that Iqbal was a songwriter with grit for bullets and an air that he's always out for blood. His real genre are his words, and any rock-driven foundation that can make it come to life. (“Biar jatuh bidadari langit sujud kaki, Takkan gentar jiwaku ini kentallah kau jangan peduli).
The band version of Iqbal M started forming during their second release, an EP entitled ‘Antara 2 Darjat’. Lyrically, the record proved the extent of Iqbal’s way with verses, from exclaiming his fear of becoming the 21st century version of a Southeast Asian folklore about an ungrateful son in the eponymous track (Aku tak mahu jadi Tanggang moden), to the anxious, stream-of-consciousness singing in Paling Cinta Dalam Dunia and Selamat Malam Encik Akauntan (my favourite track with the urgent singing of “Letakkan dia di wad kecemasan”).
Musically at this point, Iqbal M started adopting a more complete sound, although still hard to put into boxes. Usually, the folksy snarl of Iqbal’s poetic declamations are backed by competent musicians who often play riffs reminiscent of some math rock, post-punk there and middle-of-the-road indie rock arrangements too. Nothing too special, but enough to make the songs exciting. The music are film scores for the plot that is Iqbal’s words.
In the latest album, PSJKB, the music and vocals finally find equal footing. It feels like more importance is given to both as opposed to just letting the music support the words. One of the clearest examples of this is in the third track, Seri Dewi Damak, a song about a father assuring his daughter that everything will be alright, (“Ayah bukakan jalan/Kau sendiri pandu kenderaan) (also another instance of Iqbal M using Southeast Asian folklore in his lyrics). Yes, the track has the trademark Iqbal sharpness, but there’s also the punchy coda concluding the song, as guitarists, Fei and Johan, bassist, Shah, and drummer, Aidil, battle it out in one good minute of just awesome musicianship.
Another instance of this attention to musicality is the last song on the tracklist PSKJB (Perasaan Sedih Janganlah Kau Bimbang), which features guest vocals from LoQue of MonoloQue. PSJKB wraps up the album with a sheer breakdown into madness. The trajectory of this track takes you on a ride from riffs that sound vaguely like a lot of post-punk revival stuff from the early 2000s such as the Strokes, but culminates in this artful explosion of trumpets (arranged by Aisyammuddeen & performed by Ikhman Tenoi) and strings (arranged by Iqbal and performed by Resolute Quarter). Truly a satisfying climax to an album that tells a myriad of stories.
There are really cool details in some of the tracks that give each song a personality that you don’t really find in previous Iqbal M works. The starting track Pra already shows that, like the backing vocals that range from falsettos to just choruses of people shouting “Takkan pernah ku rahsia kan/Bila hati tak tenang). There’s something strangely warm and motivational about Pra . (Cuba suluh walau malap/ Tak perlulah kau gusar).
In Jangan Cakap Saja, a song that Iqbal has said in an interview is a message against bullies, the refrain Janganlah kau takut is repeated with quavering bravery, almost as though Iqbal himself is scared as well, but he chooses to be optimistic for the sake of the listeners. The emotional honesty in the way it’s sung is one of the reasons why I love Iqbal M. The really sudden switch from the chorus back to the verse in this track is heart-stopping and wonderful. The cricket sounds when Iqbal sings “Baca buku tebal / Belum tentu handal” is a such a great moment in the album, symbolising the emptiness of the ignorant or maybe an advice unheeded. The song Kota Memujuk (Merajuk) is another favourite of mine. It was released to the public in 2016, and even in its infancy the lyrics are evocative enough to get you hooked. Out of all the songs in the album, Kota Memujuk is the monument that perfectly summarises PSJKB’s direction. The lyrics “Walau terlolong kuat belum tentu Menteri, YB datang baca doa” is a witty picture of a rakyat (citizens) disillusioned by the powers-that-be. Visual artist, Fry Yusof captures that in the album art he made for PSJKB, a toy gun with the Malaysian parliament building for its grip. Democracy is the weapon, albeit probably an ineffective one, since it can be a child’s plaything. Production-wise, Kota Memujuk has evolved quite satisfactorily over the years from being featured as part of Antara 2 Darjat extended to its current form. Producer Azmy does a decent job in ensuring the band’s energy and message come to life. The only gripe I have is probably with the how Kesatuan turned out, since it feels slightly more dampened than what I’d expect it to be, with the guitars. (This is what happens when you see a song performed live for so long and there’s so much hype surrounding how it’s going to sound on the record. Partially my fault haha)
Besides Iqbal being the main composer,the guitarist Johan is also involved tremendously in the writing process, like in the song Kesatuan where both Johan and Iqbal are credited in the liner notes. Not only that, Johan gets sole credit for the song Kalau Tewas Nanti Parah. The track is a refreshing pace from the rest of the album, as it sounds brighter & happier. The stark contrast between the melodies and the darkness of the lyrics (Ditimpa lagi cinta yang mati) catches your attention really quickly. Even the ‘worst track’ on this album only gets that title from me just because it’s not as good or as exciting as the other cuts. Although Di Balik Bukit doesn’t really stand out as much, relatively speaking, it still boasts such great lines like “Benarkah itu destinasi/ Dia punya rekod buruk. Takut nant kena ‘kencing’/ Habis semua basah kuyup”.
PSJKB is proof that Iqbal M just keeps getting better and better. Their evolution is positive and their artistic statement is as clear as ever. A lot of people like to point out that if Iqbal M’s lyrics were sung by more able vocalists, they would be unstoppable. But I feel that any other conventional vocals would ruin the effect of Iqbal M’s words. The reason why people like Bob Dylan, Johnny Rotten or Iwa Fals (or even modern folk artists like Jason Ranti) is so influential is not just because of the truths they convey in their songs, but the way in which they deliver it. That these words can come from anyone, that they’re meant for everyone, and that’s why they’re powerful. And at this point in their career, Iqbal M has also found a great stepping stone in their sound, a musical canvas for their stories to bloom.
FAV TRACK(S): Seri Dewi Damak, Jangan Cakap Saja, Kalau Tewas Nanti Parah
WORST TRACK(S) Di Balik Bukit
RATING: 4.5 / 5
All images are sourced from Iqbal M's Facebook except for the picture of the physical album. Order their album from their social media, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram Do you agree with our review? Have you listened to the album? What would you rate it? Tell us your feedback. All opinions (except hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted ones) are accepted. Comment down below, or hit us up on our social media! We know it's subjective, that's why we don't want to be the only ones talking!