A Long, Slow Ride with Sunset Rollercoaster
BY Joe Henley / Sep-23-2019
Breakout Taiwanese adult contemporary soul-funk psychonauts Sunset Rollercoaster stopped by Taipei in the midst of a 56-date, on again off again world tour Friday September 13th, playing to a near capacity crowd at the Taipei International Convention Center. Weathering the icy cold of a typically reticent Taipei audience over the course of a two hour-plus set, singer/guitarist Tseng Kuo-Hung and the rest of the eight-piece ensemble left attendees awash in their breezy brand of what he jokingly (but not inaccurately) referred to as "elevator music"—a mix of the aforementioned soul and funk with hits of jazz, spacey sci-fi synths, and at times hints of their early-career flirtations with Brit Rock and psychedelia.
The set-list spanned some 23 songs, ranging from the band's 2011 full-length debut, Bossa Nova, to a play-through of their latest EP, May 2019's Vanilla Villa, a seven-minutes (in heaven) long dreamscape, the three tracks titled "Welcome to," "Vanilla," and "Villa" respectively.
The band came out bathed in neon light, stepping onto a retro-eighties sci-fi epic meets pixelated Atari-era video game set, settling in for a time to the deafening silence and scattered whoops of the crowd before Kuo greeted one and all with trademark smoothness and launched the group into the first number, a cover of Yankee jazz fusionists (and heavy Sunset Rollercoaster influence ) Weather Report's "Teen Town."
That cover intro was blended seamlessly into the band's first of many originals to come, "Cool of Lullaby," a retro dance tune heavy on the bass synth, band members bathed in a constant haze courtesy of the ever-belching stage left smoke machine. Bassist/synth player Chen Hung-Li swayed to the early-eighties Herbie Hancock funk stylings as the band around him showed the tightness that comes only with constant touring.
From then on the floodgates of laid back groove were let wide open. Starting with "Summum Bonum," Sunset Rollercoaster proceeded to take its seated audience straight into the center of a chilled-out subtropical universe where the temperature is a balmy 25 degrees C and a gentle breeze is always blowin' in off a calm sea. From a bass line backbone "New Drug" captured the essence of the band's nostalgia-infused popularity, easy listening radio fare for fans of Stranger Things and those drooling in anticipation of the upcoming eighties slasher revival season of American Horror Story.
Projected against a towering backdrop projector screen, apocalyptic scenes flashed spasmodically along with various geometric shapes taken out of a Tetris session and multiplication tables as Kuo at times showcased some Stevie Ray Vaughn crystal tone guitar chops, drowned in carefully curated lighting tones of magenta, fuxia, and other dark and vaguely sanguine shades the rest of us plebes might simply call pink or purple.
Between songs, Kuo's stage banter fluttered from self-deprecating, telling the audience it was all right if the music put them to sleep, to taking subtle shots at Taipei's live music scene. At one point he launched into an anecdote born of the band's recent forays overseas, saying audiences in Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. come out solely to support the band and have a good time, whereas in Taiwan people come mainly in a provincial, judgmental frame of mind, there to decide if the band is worth the hype or just another "Next Big Thing" doomed to fade.
It seems that Sunset Rollercoaster have moved past that precarious NBT phase, however, selling out halls and clubs literally around the world while playing a style of music that faded out in its original incarnation long before the death knell of terrestrial radio. If there is a band leading the easy listening revival, however, playing off the retro pop popularity of artists like The Weeknd and to a lesser extent the pop funk resurrection of mainstream singers such as Bruno Mars, it is Sunset Rollercoaster, who manage to seem earnest when playing tunes like "Almost Mature '87," a song that sounds like it could be the title track for an eighties cop drama, a forlorn ballad set against a sinewy sounding guitar and a poppy, minimalist beat. The sound within this single song ranges from the soaring arena schlock of Foreigner to genuine baby makin' funk music while in what is perhaps a nod to the overt saccharine nature of the number, red swirled hard candies fall against the backdrop.
Whatever anyone might think of the sound, you have to remember that this is an independent band that has sold tens of thousands of records on their own indie label (mostly overseas), in an era when sales of physical music (except for vinyl) are falling across the board. Kuo, a veteran session musician in the Taipei pop scene in years past, clearly has the business savvy and the songwriting skills, more importantly. He and the other stage-hardened musicians he's surrounded himself with have settled into a new sound like a warm bath, somehow emerging just ahead of the curve of uber-wisful eighties worship, before it moves from honest homage to tired parody, but they haven't left the past behind nor are they hesitant to dive back into more treacherous waters.
Case in point, Kuo and co. trotted out some earlier, more raucous fare, if only for a brief auditory glimpse, playing Bossa Nova tunes such as "No Man's Land," a jumpier, freakier song that could have been an old Doors studio outtake or something from The Brian Jonestown Massacre's late-nineties early-aughts attempts at sixties Brit Rock revolution. From that bit of freakery they launched straight into even heavier psych vibes with "Hogi Hogi La Jo Jo," which goes full-on carnival funhouse weird with its energetic, bouncy percussion—jaunty, even—that disassembles live into some tempestuous free-jazz whinnying on the saxophone.
From there on out, it was back to the New Sunset Rollercoaster—the sound the band came back with after a five-year hiatus in 2016 with the Jinji Kikko EP. After 20 songs, Kuo hinted that audience could have more, if they so wished, and finally the crowd responded with some atypical capital city adoration, drawing the band back out. For the curtain call Kuo sandwiched one of the band's hits, the uncharacteristically fleeting yet no less ephemeral "I Know You Know I Love You" between a pair of covers, the latter of which turned out to be the Teresa Teng smash of yesteryear "The Moon Represents My Heart."
It was the kind of night you expect from a more veteran act, an "An Evening With..." career-spanning retrospective only the Springsteens and the Maydays of the rock and pop rock sphere might get away with. But Sunset Rollercoaster pulled it off, in beautiful, serene fashion no less. And now, on they ride.