PHILIPPINES: Diwa - Juan Karlos
Updated: Jan 3
Containing a variety of rock genres within, Juan Karlos' debut album shatters the child star image of its lead singer and songwriter with style
It may come as surprise to some of you reading this article without a knowledge of the Filipino music scene that Juan Karlos is not a person. Well, Juan Karlos is a person, but in this case it’s also a band named after its singer and lead songwriter, Juan Karlos Labajo, in the vein of bands like Santana or Bon Jovi. Labajo himself became well-known in the Philippines by performing on The Voice Kids when he was just 13. He came in third place, perhaps another example of the old showbiz rule that it’s better to lose a TV singing competition than win one. After a few years on the music and acting scene, he decided to form a band at the young age of just 16 that performs music in an alternative rock vein, I assume to break away from his child star image and create an album that was more reflective of his own artistic and creative instincts. This album, Diwa, was released when he was just 19. I was surprised to find out just how young he was when writing this review because the music and singing sound incredibly accomplished and experienced. I had initially assumed the album was by someone far older, but perhaps it does make sense that a teenager with already several years of singing professionally by the age of around 18 when he recorded the album could put in a vocal performance like this.
“The youthful enthusiasm is still to be found on the album, however, with the sheer volume of different rock styles, from alternative to blues rock, power ballads to folk rock, showing a band that is keen to leave their mark.”
Though Labajo is not quite on the level of someone like Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi in terms of sounding like a much older person who has been mainlining whisky and puffing away on cigarettes like a chimney, he certainly has something of that quality to his voice, and it’s that soulful, rich voice that adds so much to the record. It is present throughout and effective throughout. His voice goes from silky smooth all the way through to straining and almost raspy voice at points. This not only shows off his range but also his ability to suit the mood of the songs. Occasionally channelling Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, occasionally Thom Yorke-esque in his higher registers, Labajo’s many years of singing professionally in the music scene are put to good use in his band’s solo debut. Malay is a good example of this. It is a song that veers from a folky balladeering to a hard rock climax, and Labajo’s controlled vocal performance allows him to use both sides of his voice to good effect.
However, Juan Karlos the band is not just the Labajo solo show. There is lead guitarist Jeriko Aguilar, the bass player, Louise Bayas, and the drummer Gian Hipolito, all of whom shine on the record, though perhaps inevitably, Aguilar steals the show on an instrumental level, with the many of the guitar parts being explosively bombastic. Aguilar shreds on the opening track Ulan like he’s Jimmy Page in around 1971, before going into a gently bluesy mode for most of Kalawakan, before once again showing off his impressive guitar skills for a truly melodic and powerful solo. What’s great about his playing is he does not fall into the trap of playing quickly for its own sake; he is wise enough to know that a good guitar solo does not solely rely of guitar pyrotechnics which ultimately do not entertain as much as riffing around on the main scales and musical hooks of the main song. Even when Aguilar has to be more subdued on songs like Sampaguita, or on the acoustic track Kulimlim, he manages to make the guitar lines full of detail and interesting flourishes and the guitar solos sweet and bluesy.
An album this accomplished written mainly by a teenager makes this a very impressive collection of songs, and it does generate excitement for what Juan Karlos will do next. Debut albums are often diamonds in the rough, energetic affairs that make up for in enthusiasm what they lack in technical skill or production value, but this is not one of those albums. Juan Karlos appear to have come into the recording studio fully formed and with a clear idea of the music they wanted to make, and how to make it. The youthful enthusiasm is still to be found on the album, however, with the sheer volume of different rock styles, from alternative to blues rock, power ballads to folk rock, showing a band that is keen to leave their mark. It is this all mixed in together that makes it a great album. The album rocks hard at points, but its also achingly beautiful and soulful (just check out the sax solo on Jenny), often within the same song, which is why Kalawakan may be the best song on the album due to its ability to evoke both sides of Juan Karlos’s musical capabilities on one glorious track. It may not be a perfect album – I think the rapping on Sampaguita does not quite fit in with the rest of the album, and Miss You is just a bit too sentimental for my liking – but it does manage to establish Juan Karlos as a serious talent.