Once upon a time, rock dominated the Filipino music mainstream.
A slew of bands from different sub-genres came one after the other — you had your Eraserheads, Rivermaya, Kamikazee, Urbandub with a more pop appeal; Chicosci and Typecast for your pop-punk fix; The Wuds and The Jerks for the harder punk scene; the “Three Kings” Greyhoundz, Queso, and Slapshock for nu-metal; standard rock outfits like Wolfgang, Siakol, Yano, Rizal Underground, The Youth; Ciudad for your softer, indie rock tastes; death metal bands like Skychurch, Signos, Dethrone, and many more.
All of these bands had the ability to fill every type of venue, from your small bar gigs to large concert venues. Rock festivals and battle of the bands competitions were everywhere like Pulp Summer Slam and Red Horse Muziklaban, to name a few. Gig venues dedicated to rock music like Club Dredd and Mayric’s were hotspots for rock culture, while radio stations like NU Rock 107.5 and its accompanying NU Rock Awards gave rock music a space on the airwaves.
However, the late 2000s and 2010s saw the decline of that hard rock sound in the mainstream. More acoustic, R&B, hip-hop, and traditional pop acts gained prominence and eventually ended up taking over. In the lead up to the 2020s, there seemed to be no prominent rock band that matched the level of popularity of their predecessors. It seemed, at first glance, that Pinoy Rock was officially dead.
The age of acoustic
In the 2000s, a wave of acoustic acts started to make their way onto the airwaves. This was the age of acoustic, pioneered by artists like Paolo Santos, Nina, MYMP, and their contemporaries.
“I think audiences were, in general, looking for new sounds. Maybe it’s because they outgrew loud music, as you do,” former NU Rock 107.5 DJ and guitarist of The Dawn Francis Reyes shares. “Maybe they didn’t want to be in crowded, sweaty, and wild situations anymore: there is no mosh pit in a Paolo Santos concert!”
He continues, saying, “His “Moonlight Over Paris” harkened back to an earlier, romantic, and Western-themed pop sound, like Jose Mari Chan’s ‘Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile.’ It was, for the time, fresh and yet alluded to childhood vibes, for me at least. It had a sweetness; quite a contrast to, say, the bitter frustration in ‘Pare Ko.‘”
There’s a truth in Reyes’ sentiments. Rock music had persevered in the country since its birth in the ’70s, and had explored different forms and styles well into the 2000s and beyond. Regardless of the subgenre, all rock music had a common denominator: it was loud and in-your-face. Beyond just the sound, the lyrics of the songs themselves told the stories of the Filipino experience in all its dimensions — both the good, bad, and the ugly.
Wolfgang’s “Halik ni Hudas” (Judas’ Kiss) was unabashedly against “the establishment,” especially with lyrics like “Ubos na’ng mga bayani, mga duwag ang nalalabi” (All the heroes are gone, the cowards were left behind) and “Sumunod sa mga utos, mga lason na pangako” (Following the rules, the promises like poison).
Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo” (The Last ‘El Bimbo’) tells the dark story of a woman going through different tragedies in her life until her eventual death. On a more positive note, Rivermaya’s “Liwanag Sa Dilim” (The Light In The Darkness) rouses the nationalistic feeling and has been used in different political settings.
In contrast, acoustic music leaned more into the romantic, imaginative, almost whimsical aspects of life. A lot of the most popular acoustic songs revolved around love and heartbreak, like Jimmy Bondoc’s “Let Me Be The One,” Nina’s “Someday,” and MYMP’s “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” to name a few. While there were acoustic songs that confronted social realities, like Gary Granada’s releases, the overwhelming mainstream songs revolved around the former theme.
For Jason Caballa — who has played guitar for a number of rock bands over the years like Pedicab, Cheats, and Twisted Halo — solo acoustic acts were simply just more viable for venues to book, given their popularity and simpler set-up compared to bigger bands. Acoustic pop started to compete with rock, and at that specific time in the late ’90s to early 2000s, the rock kids were into the nu-metal sound.
“Bands that were somewhere in the middle — even bands with catchy, melodic songs like Sugarfree and the Itchyworms — had to struggle a bit,” he says. “I think Bamboo coming out in ‘03 or ‘04 was a catalyst for Pinoy Rock to be popular again. A lot of bands got signed during this period, and even indie acts like Up Dharma Down were getting a lot of attention.”
The rock sound as the country knew it was loud, brash, in-your-face, and hardcore. At the turn of the century and as the years went on, rock started to integrate pop elements and vice versa.
“Rock got mixed in too much with the mainstream,” Caballa shares. “For example, a song by Mayonnaise or Orange and Lemons would get sandwiched between Jay-R and Sarah Geronimo’s latest singles, and they wouldn’t feel out of place. This wasn’t a bad thing because it gave bands more opportunities for airplay and shows. Conversely, it made pop music more legitimate to the ears of rock artists.”
“By the 2010s, “rock” wasn’t necessarily just loud guitars and drums anymore; one can hear a lot of bands incorporate electronics, dance beats, and even R&B-style singing into their music. As much as it was evolving, the rock sound as we knew it was getting diluted and harder to distinguish or categorize.”
There are a number of factors that contributed to the decline of that hard rock sound in the mainstream. Yes, one factor is the change of popular tastes towards the more acoustic or pop sound, but another factor to highlight was the loss of important institutions that invested and pushed rock music to the forefront of Filipino society.
Closing up shop
Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Creating good music is important, but in the bigger picture, a genre is formed by an interdisciplinary web of musicians, private companies, media, and venues. Music is inherently a communal experience — meaning that a scene can only be created when musicians have an audience and people investing in that sound. Media, festivals, and competitions created by the private sector, as well as venues that allow bands to gain exposure are how music reaches a captured audience that will actively consume and seek out bands in that genre.
That’s what happened with Pinoy Rock. The closing of NU Rock 107.5, the steady decline of rock-centered music festivals and concerts, the closing of iconic venues like Club Dredd and Mayric’s, and other related catalysts slowly chipped away at the interconnected support system of the scene. These were venues that nurtured rock bands from all different sub-genres, whether you’re in the indie, hardcore, shoegaze, or alternative veins. The NU Rock Awards and NU events were also an important pillar of the scene, not just giving recognition to already popular bands, but also recognizing the up-and-comers with awards like the In The Raw Award, which was given to unsigned, independent bands. It wasn’t just in Manila. NU Rock Cebu also supported regional bands, and that NU Rock network brought acts like Urbandub to perform in Manila for the first time as well as distribute their CDs to the scene in the capital.
When rock dominated the mainstream, it was also the push given to record labels to sign all different types of bands during the genre’s heyday.
“As early as the late ‘90s, nu metal was becoming the prevalent sound of Pinoy Rock, at least in the major label world. Bands like Greyhoundz, and later on Cheese and Slapshock, started getting signed as early as ‘98 to ’99,” explains Caballa.
“While obviously on the heels of a then-worldwide trend, I think it was brave of these labels to take a chance on these bands, as heavy, detuned guitars and growled or rapped vocals weren’t for everybody. So, despite their popularity with their intended audience, radio airplay was limited, and to a lesser extent, their reputation for drawing rowdy crowds made a few venues hesitant to host their shows, but promoters and brands who were really “pro-rock” gave them a lot of support.”
Does this mean that Pinoy Rock is dead? I don’t think so. Just because the genre isn’t as prominent in the mainstream doesn’t mean that the genre is dead overall. What happened was that Pinoy Rock went back underground, where communities and audiences became insulated. The loyal fans stayed with the bands and production houses, creating a tight-knit community that flourished over time even in small bar gigs. Independent production houses and communities have continued to organize shows for all different genres of rock up until today.
The promising “return” of Pinoy rock
In the age of the Internet, the concept of “mainstream” has become fluid. Decades ago, it was easier to draw the lines between the underground and mainstream — they were judged through record sales, airplay time, and the like. Today, streams have become the definite measure for what makes a song popular. Social media platforms have proven that artists no longer need a label, a physical CD, or even a live venue in order to go viral.
Today, it’s safe to say that the elements of Pinoy rock have made its way into every genre. Bands aren’t just limited to being rock groups anymore — you can see pop bands like Sunkissed Lola and Lola Amour, folk bands like Ben&Ben, and the like. However, that doesn’t mean that the “classic” (if you can even describe what a ‘classic’ Pinoy rock sound sounds like) elements aren’t present anymore. If anything, it’s those early Pinoy rock elements that are actually coming back with a vengeance.
Take for example Juan Karlos’ record- and chart-breaking “ERE” from Sad Songs and Bullshit Part 1, is your bread-and-butter rock ballad. Fellow chart-topper Dilaw — with their pop-rock studio recordings and metal-hardcore-avant-garde live performances — are both proof that the Filipino and global audience want that harder rock sound back.
“Pinoy rock is far from dead — it’s thriving and has been thriving since the days of the first Filipino rockstars. There has always been a group of musicians in this country ready to express themselves and make noise,” says Leon Altomonte, guitarist of Dilaw. As he looks to the future, he — along with so many other budding rock acts in the country — are part of a new generation that grows with the evolution of the Pinoy rock sound.
“Pinoy rock can go anywhere. As long as young musicians are looking to express themselves and push the limits, Pinoy rock will always grow. The generations before us put in so much heart and soul into creating a scene for younger musicians to thrive, and as long as there are musicians fostering a scene and promoting growth, Pinoy rock won’t die.”