Devilish dissonance, eerie vocals and meeting Satan at the crossroads. Sonny Inbaraj Krishnan found that out when he encountered Phnom Skor at the Mansion in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Skor or Sugar Mountain in English describe themselves a four-piece ‘dirty blues’ outfit.
“We’re part punk, part grunge, part eerie, with devilish dissonance and baroque overtones. We’re always informed and inspired by back-to-the-roots Delta blues,” says the band co-founder and lead guitarist RJ Marshall.
Nonetheless, the devilish dissonance and the eerie vocals in Phnom Skor wouldn’t be there without its frontman Vanntin Hoeurn aka Tin – a cross between Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits. And this is not an exaggeration.
Did Tin, also the frontman of Sliten6ix, meet Satan at the crossroads and make a deal, like Robert Johnson, in exchange for his extraordinary talent?
On stage, at the Mansion last Saturday, the singer in his natural plumage writhed like a possessed man, pulled faces, chained smoked, guzzled whiskey from a bottle, gulped beer from cans, and jumped and stomped his feet.
Through it all, with Michael Forster pounding the drums, RJ Marshall cajoling his Les Paul guitar to scream and Danzo Ke’ Aloha with his funky bass – picking up where the late Jaco Pastorius left off – Tin delivers his own raspy-styled versions of compositions by the inventors of grunge and Delta blues masters, not to mention his originals, too. It’s a pure blues-rock-grunge bombast and words do injustice in describing Phnom Skor’s performance.
Take Tin’s rendition of St James Infirmary, made famous by Louis Armstrong. In sheer haunting Tom Waits style he sings:
I went down to the St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there,
She’s laid out on a cold white table,
So so cold, so sweet , so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search this wide world over
She’ll never find a sweet man like me.
That crying and pleading is repeated in the dark ‘Kon Ery’, an original Vanntin composition in Khmer about a man losing the plot to alcohol, with the background voice saying: “I believe what I’m told to believe.”
Phnom Skor has come a long way since they were first formed in 2015, after RJ Marshall team up with Tin when returned back to Cambodia from a brief sojourn in Europe.
From struggling to find compositions to fill in a set, Tin now breezes through 30 songs in a two-and-half hour energy-filled gig.
“Basically I started off screaming in a metal band. It was sort of I didn’t know I could sing,” Tin tells Soi Music TV.
“I was drunk when I first met RJ Marshall and both of us started jamming. He played the guitar and I sang. And that was the first time I knew I could sing and not just scream.
“Then we met Danzo. First we thought he was a backpacker, but man we found out he could actually play fantastic bass!
“That’s how Phnom Skor started.”
Those chance encounters, which later blossomed into a wonderful collaboration with Michael Forster on drums, started off with RJ Marshall and Tin reworking Floyd Council’s ‘Runaway Man Blues’. Floyd Council was a practitioner of the Piedmont blues, which was popular in the southeastern United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and RJ Marshall transposed Council’s acoustic guitar work on his Les Paul guitar in open tuning and electrified ‘Runaway Man Blues’ with Tin crooning in his deep raspy voice.
It’s been an incredible journey for Phnom Skor and greater things are in store for them. For Tin, he is Mr. Blues-Grunge Rocker on stage reminiscent of what Tom Waits once said, “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk.”