Album Premiere: Playburst – ‘Positive Jams’

Posted: by The Editor

In May of this year, I was scrolling Bandcamp when I stumbled on a song from a band called Playburst from Malaysia that I was instantly obsessed with. “Waste of Time” is full of wiry, stabbing guitars and frenetic drums; the crisp stop-start dynamics and shifting rhythms captured the jittery elation of Braid’s emo keystone Frame and Canvas. However, I couldn’t find anything else about Playburst. As far as I could tell, they had materialized for the sole purpose of recording this banger and then disappeared.

I didn’t have long to wait—within two weeks Playburst released a second song, and by June their self-titled EP was released on cassette through Utarid Tapes in Malaysia and Chillwavve Records in the U.S. Playburst has not slowed down: they’re already back with first full-length album, Positive Jams.

Playburst formed out of an experiment in mixing emo and math rock by drummer Tiong and guitarist Wan, and they recruited Afiq, normally a guitar player, to play bass. They practiced briefly as an instrumental trio until singer Aidil saw a video online, recognized Wan, and joined the band in March. The band sounded impossibly tight from the very beginning, which is at least partially explained by the band’s collective resume, which is enormous; spanning two decades and the breadth of Malaysia’s scene from power-pop to grindcore. Their Bandcamp lists the members’ affiliations: “Former / Current members of Couple, The Fridays, Jalan Sehala, Crack Guilty, Pakatan Haram Jadah, Tools Of The Trade, Code Error, Kah-Roe-Shi etc.” The “etc.” kills me.

After releasing their EP, the band quickly realized they weren’t done, and went back into the studio with their friend Mokhtarizal to record enough songs to make it a proper album. All 10 songs were recorded in 4 days, with most of the drums and guitars tracked live. They did well to capitalize on the moment: Positive Jams sustains the hyper-kinetic energy that made “Waste of Time” so arresting on first listen. Aside from the gentle two minutes of finger-picked guitars and distant melodies of the wordless “Positivity Jam,” the album never stops churning. “Hurt Yourself” alternates between a cheeky, needling guitar line and a chugging power chords like peak Superchunk. “About Time,” is a miracle of tension and release that seems perpetually about to fall apart, only to reveal a new hook behind each unexpected shift into a new time signature, from gentle American Football-style twinkling to riffs burly enough for a Glocca Morra record. At the heart of all of it are those drums, every track a display of inhuman energy.

Positive Jams lives up to its name. Dwelling on memory, longing, and how the regrets are killing you are all time-tested lyrical fodder for emo bands, and the album touches on these themes. But it always returns to the uplifting: major key melodies, gang vocal sing-a-longs, and choruses that rush along with such urgency and enthusiasm they nearly take flight. The band ends almost every song with whatever sliver of silver lining there is to find.

This doggedly optimistic outlook is clear from the outset: “We’ll Be Fine” opens with a soaring chorus of “woah-oh”s, followed by a second set of even more ecstatic “woah-oh”s before the first verse begins. The song sits with the pain of loss—” Guess it’s time to say goodbye again, you know it’s time to let it end. Will I ever see your face again? Will we ever be just friends?”—but ultimately concludes: “I’ll be doing fine. Still on my mind, we will be fine.”

“Positivity was a conscious group decision when it came to making the record,” says Aidil, “Some of the songs do come from a place of positivity while some are earnest attempts to stay positive in difficult times. It’s never wrong to stay positive anyway, right?” These glass-half-full-isms aren’t a put-on; Aidil is constantly brimming with excitement when he talks about the band and their local scene. “Malaysian kids are a wonderfully rowdy bunch at shows” he says, “Moshpits are a very common occurrence, and this energy usually makes a lot of the shows a lot of fun.”

For DIY bands in Malaysia, the most common venues are shoplots (small rental properties for shops or offices, commonly laid out in long rows of three-four story buildings) or converted rehearsal studios, and bands and audiences are usually packed tightly together. Aidil, with characteristic cheerfulness, sees this as a positive for their local scene: “It’s the intimacy that we like best about playing shows in our city. It’s a small scene, so you’re bound to bump into friends or make new ones, so that community feeling is very real.”

Although Malaysia’s underground has been active and vibrant since the punk and metal bands of the 80s (like Punisher, Nemesis, Hijrah, and Malaria), when I ask Aidil what he thinks the outside perception of Malaysia’s music scene is like, he laughs. “To be honest, I don’t think there’s even a perception of the scene here from outside. We’re just too far off and too small for people to really notice, unless they consciously try to look for something here.” It’s difficult to reach foreign audiences on a DIY budget, and labels are hesitant to take financial risks on Asian bands that don’t have established an U.S. fanbase. However, the band has been pleasantly surprised that they’ve connected with listeners outside Malaysia, and Aidil view this as part of a hopeful trend. He says emphatically, “We need more labels as ballsy as Chillwavve and Topshelf out there!”

And you better believe I asked, and the answer is Yes: the album title is a Hold Steady reference. As Craig Finn would say, it’s one thing to start it with a positive jam, but it’s another thing to see it on through. Playburst are seeing it through.

Because it’s like they say on “Be Strong”: “Sometimes it ends in disaster, a disappointment’s all you’ve got. Just keep it together, keep on saying whatever. It only gets better.”

Positive Jams comes out October 13 (Cassette Store Day in Malaysia) on Teenage Head Records.

Keegan Bradford | @franziamom

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