When Unique Salonga announced two years ago that he’d be embarking on a solo career, profile writers (including myself) wracked their brains to find an angle that could cleanly ensnare his narrative. A genius, a moody recluse, a band leader gone rogue were a few offered classifications. But none of these labels worked. And when he came out with his album Grandma, an eclectic album that refused to sit still in one style, it became clear that Unique’s dedication to his craft wasn’t the sort of thing that could be shaken up by fame.
Seemingly driving this point home further is Unique’s latest full length, PANGALAN:, which I take as Unique reestablishing who he is as an artist, but on his own terms. The album art shows the songwriter in an oversized lab coat, as if having emerged from a lab full of beakers, bunsen burners, and crazy straw tubes to showcase his latest musical concoction.
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And PANGALAN: is quite the concoction. Many of the tracks on Grandma came across like beta versions of what could’ve been perfect radio hits. They were rough around the edges in terms of composition and dynamics, but they had the makings of greatness, abundant with hooks and a sense for melody that would make Paul McCartney nod in approval. PANGALAN: sounds like something more thought through. A tight release with just eight tracks, every artistic decision in this album feels deliberate and purposeful.
The album’s MVPs are “Dambuhala” and “Lamang Lupa,” two impressively strong rock tracks that showcase Salonga’s knack for riff-driven songcraft and invoke the stylings of alt rock and post-punk. Other critics might dismiss Salonga as a psychedelic rock impersonator, but these songs are actually pretty heavy and even a little menacing.
Salonga’s chops are also apparent in the ballads “Pahinga” and “Huwag Ka Sanang Magalit,” poignant like a Cinemalaya movie’s denouement. There’s also “Bukod-Tangi,” a delightfully bright track that pulls off a big feat: making whistles not sound annoying. Props.
Where PANGALAN: really makes an impression though is its instrumentals. The opening track “Korporasyon” is a stage-setter that skirts the line between house and industrial. In it we hear Unique working with complicated, almost abrasive textures that are hard to imagine with his voice in the mix. But despite its playtime of three and a half minutes, it’s there and then gone without leaving much of an impression.
There’s also the uncanny “Delubyo,” a literal deluge of found sounds, snappy backmasks and glitches. The intent to make something atmospheric is there, but I fail to understand the part it plays in an album of approachable pop songs.
I can’t qualify the instrumentals on PANGALAN: as missteps, if only for earnestness, but it seems that Unique hasn’t quite come into his own as a solo musician. In order for that to happen, he has to take notes from the pop stars and/or rock stars (Unique is an interesting hybrid of both) that came before him. He could go the route of Maggie Rogers and synthesize his pop and indie rock upbringing, or even take cues from Charli XCX and go crazy with collaborators. I don’t know! But that’s what’s exciting about Unique. You never really know what he’s going to do next.
You can listen to ‘PANGALAN:’ on Spotify.