Arrington de Dionyso sings like Diamanda Galás if she had the range of Johnny Cash and spoke Indonesian. With his band Malaikat dan Singa (“Angels and Lions”), he sounds kind of like Captain Beefheart, if the Magic Band had a less interesting rhythm section — and if Beefheart, God rest his soul, sang in Indonesian. De Dionyso is sort of like a throat-singing Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters… Whatever, did I mention this guy sings in Indonesian? It’s not his native language. He learned it to impress a girl. He’s like some art-freak version of Eat, Pray, Love.
Actually, “singing” is inadequate to describe de Dionyso’s vocal approach. You could often call it “growling”, “preaching”, “howling”, and sometimes “ululating”. And then there’s the Tuvan throat singing (he gives workshops), which probably took as long to master as Indonesian. The vocals on Suara Naga (“The Dragon’s Voice”) are an art-freak’s vision of Unbridled Punk Rock Freedom, with a fair amount of Mystical Tribal Savagery thrown in for good measure. It’s a little troubling that de Dionyso equates savage otherness with singing in Indonesian, a language spoken by millions of sophisticated people. But real Indonesians seem to love him, at least the 20 or so who love weirdo outsider rock, and anyway the Malaikat project isn’t all that different from his shtick with the English-language band Old Time Relijun. Only the languages and relijuns have changed.
Maybe digging this music all comes down to your feelings about throat singing. You know who likes throat singing? Ethnomusicologists. They devote a whole semester to that shit. And then there’s those people who go to concerts of Art Music but don’t really like Bach because he puts ‘em to sleep, and don’t really like showtunes because they feel they’re being patronized — those cats love throat singing. It sounds otherworldly and vaguely machine-like, and it leads to excellent post-concert arguments about the overtone series.
As to whether this music’s any good… You know those people who’ll have a party and devote all their energy to making one element really impressive? Maybe they created an elaborate Eat, Pray, Love trivia game, or hired a gamelan orchestra, or they greeted you at the door dressed as orangutans. The trouble is, they neglected to invite interesting people or clean the bathroom, so you’re relieved when it’s time to go home, even though you know you’ve seen something unique.
On this album, de Dionyso is the orangutan costume and his band is the dirty bathroom. They’re not inept, but they don’t do very much aside from laying down simple two-bar ostinatos and letting their guy do his thing. Occasionally, this results in some thrilling skronk, as in “Susu Naga” (“Drunk This Milk from the Breasts of the Dragon”). (Dragons have breasts?) If you like meditating to long woodwind tones, there’s much to love about “Wadah Rohani” (“Spiritual Containers”).
Too often, though, the grooves here are pretty mundane. “Aku di Penjara” (“I’m in Jail”) resembles the kind of slow, guitar-laced hip-hop track that you’d find tacked to the end of an overstuffed rap album. “Madu Mahadahsyat” (“Extraordinary Honey”) resembles the beginning of the Doors’ “Break on Through” played over and over, albeit with an Indonesian yodeler.
Suara Naga isn’t a mystical portal to meditative wholeness, or an unbridled free music meltdown. It is a marginally entertaining psych album by a committed and confident vocalist who’s not going anywhere. (This is Malaikat dan Singa’s second album — who would’ve put money on that?) At 40 minutes, it’s also mercifully short. It’s got some good bass clarinet parts. Depending on the amount of throat singing and/or bass clarinet music in your collection, you might enjoy putting this on once a year.