The return of the eclectic music festival in Kuala Lumpur sparks in City Roars Fest

An urban sprawl like Kuala Lumpur is home to various communities – subcultures, countercultures, niches and subgroups alike. It takes a lot of grit and ambition to do something that even attempts at bridging the gaps between. City Roars Fest 2022 is a laudable hail mary at exactly that.

It is not the first of its kind to serve an eclectic line-up, but its presence surely  felt more significant due to its scale and timing.  On 28 May, the new state-of-the-art venue, Zepp Kuala Lumpur boasted 12 acts in one day all on one stage. The venue’s sound system puts everything on blast with high quality engineering, giving our local indie acts the amplification they deserve.

Source: City Roars Festival

After two years of devastating lockdown uncertainties, City Roars Fest felt like a heave of relief and celebration where the gaps of social distancing is finally filled with dancing (and/or moshing depending on the music). Everything could be felt to the fullest again, and with a schedule that’s just back-to-back performance, it was an adrenaline-infused test of stamina and joy, something  I haven’t felt in a long time.

Of course, many  underground gigs and smaller venues have brought life back to this pre-pandemic energy already. However, City Roars Fest scratched an itch that I never thought I had. A resounding observation was made which applies even to concerts prior to COVID-19’s deathly touch.

City Roars Fest reminds us that it’s possible to bring different demographics of indie music together to enjoy one singular cultural experience.

Festivals that succeed at doing what City Roars Fest does this year must know, this is not just about putting people from different genres together on stage a la Run DMC vs Aerosmith or Siti Nurhaliza and Too Phat. There are many large festivals with the capacity to host 100 acts on multiple stages at once that bring people from all over. But these festivals are too large, and often pit local acts against international acts with already established fanbases – fan bases with no interest in coming in at 3pm to see someone they don’t know at all, so they show up only at 9 later in the night.

After two years of devastating lockdown uncertainties, City Roars Fest felt like a heave of relief and celebration

Other festivals find themselves in the trap of associative branding even when it’s not their intention or fault – where the name of the organizers or sponsors attract only a specific kind of demographic. Think Burning Man’s appeal to tarot-reading psychonauts with mildly offensive

Native American headgear, or TAPAUfest’s inadvertent attraction to Malay indie fans from the heydays of 2008 onwards also known as the stragglers of the Second and Third Indie Wave. There have been steps forward across the board in the Malaysian music scene for festivals who seek to be “diverse” and actually stick to their word but none feel as complete as what happened at City Roars.

Source: City Roars Festival

All of this doesn’t just work like a shopping list of representation – it all boils down to curation. What City Roars Fest does with curation is phenomenally seamless. Although it leaves you wanting (and panting)  with its continuous train of performances in a one-stage festival, it’s cool to see, hear and feel the lineup deliberated with pacing and sound in mind. Rock bands make way for R&B acts and Malay indie groups alternate with English-speaking and Chinese-speaking urban artists.

The curation and sequencing gives you room to breathe and keeps you on your toes, while also making it easy for you to ease yourself into checking out the next act even if you don’t know who’s coming next. No fillers. Sure, maybe in the latter parts of the festival you have older acts like Seven Collar T-Shirt feel a little too familiar to be exciting, the other side of the coin are older acts that serve both nostalgia and the promise of something new, with Kuching power-charged slacker indie pop, Nicestupidplayground.

“ our local indie acts the amplification they deserve.”

After frivolously coming into the realisation with a fellow friend that Nicestupidplayground have been around for 30 years now and that any semblance of youth now have is just a farce wrapped around our fragile joints, it was also freaking exciting to see the band embrace an openly shoegazey and garage-esque side to their sound in their upcoming untitled. Hearing ‘Bedroom Window’ live felt like cognitive dissonance mixed in a huge soup of time travel since the vocals sound exactly the same, even though everyone’s now several decades older.

Lest we give too much credit to veterans, what really makes City Roars Fest constantly exhilirating are the bold and the new. Art pop and neo-R&B star Shelhiel served up not just a riveting live rendition of his current repertoire (even harkening back to the early days of Flowers), but also served up a sky-shattering house-electronica pop (more than anything on SUPERSTROBE except for maybe STAR) single  called Sayang, a fresh premier primed for the festival. Even though he just released a single and short film entitled “farewell angel”, already he offers more to be ecstatic about from the future worlds of the Shelhiel-scape.

Source: City Roars Festival

The highlight of my night however had to be the ethereal, Mandarin balladry meets alternative metal, Arvan. Not having known a single iota about them, seeing the whole band put the stage in an emotional trance was a sight to behold. The vocalist’s charismatic, sorceress persona during the songs was hypnotising while rekindling the familiarity of Mando ballads and the atmospheric aggression of both post-rock and alternative metal combined. On top of that, the  suspense and grandiose artistry, with elaborate calligraphy accompanying the already emotional music, that makes Arvan’s brand of alternative metal uniquely their own.

“Let’s mosh until we scare the fucking ghosts away”

On top of all of that, Arvan is the quintessence of what this article is about. The reason why I don’t know them is because my Mandarin is Duolingo Level 3. Concerts that cut through linguistic, racial, genre, and other barriers – introducing you to worlds you’d never even glance at if things were any other way – that kinda stuff is few and far between. City Roars Fest lived up to that crossover.

It’s this curation, as well, that gave me the joy of seeing an urban Chinese audience who are more comfortable speaking their native tongue be awestruck  at seeing bands like Sweetass and HACKTICK! rip the venue to shreds. The same way that I, and several other people who are more familiar with Malay-language and English-language bands were as equally mesmerised by the presence of Arvan. This is the cheesy shit people talk about when they say music is magic. That joy of discovery is incomparable. Seeing other people be drawn to the stuff you’ve fallen in love with already is a small, precious solace.Getting excited over new things after decades of listening to music gets is its own kind of stupid, effective hope.

Source: City Roars Festival

Anyway, pretense and vacuous poetry aside, the walls of sound that pierce through the crowd at City Roars rang through my head for several days afterwards. During HACKTICK!’s performance, lead singer Hyke Nasir proclaimed an apropos trivia. The place where Zepp KL stands, once stood a prison, which, according to the rules of local and Hollywood superstition, probably makes it haunted. To that Hyke shouts, “let’s mosh until we scare the fucking ghosts away”. That ‘ghost’ represents the bleak past of the pandemic, exorcised from the lethargy of an already dying industry. That moshing is the ineffable joy that will rally a whole new musical zeitgeist that is truly cosmopolitan and colourful – maybe the makeshift defibrillator that will bring something to life..

More and more smaller organizers are picking up the mantle like LUAS, Malaya Roll and the upcoming Lost Valley Fest. More and more acts just keep broadening the horizon of what’s possible. City Roars is just one loud triumphant cry amongst a whole pride of music lovers itching to sing their hearts out in a new chapter. Here’s hoping.