Experimental noise rock duo Senyawa released their new album Alkisah on more than 40 different labels around the world, hoping each one would make its own remixes and tweaks to art and production to best suit their specific audiences. It’s a fascinating idea that reframes the tensions between local and global concepts as dynamic and productive, opening new doors for transnational musical communication. I can only speak to my personal experience with Brighton-based Phantom Limb’s version of Alkisah for this review, but I present this overarching premise in the hopes of putting it in dialogue with those sonic specifics: both unequivocally prove Senyawa’s inventive approach to their music.
On the level of content, Alkisah, an equivalent to “once upon a time”, is a concept album with folkloric overtones. The songs therein tell stories of people pushing past the brink of apocalypse, whom we follow from this realization through a desperate last stand and an entropic decline to their inevitable doomsday. It’s an album that arcs from melancholy to agony and back again in marvelously unpredictable ways.
Alkisah is also steeped in many kinds of culture. Senyawa’s avant-garde stylings are rooted deep in a range of Indonesian folk sounds enmeshed with ferocious punk energy. After a brief philosophical introduction pondering the futility of human power structures in the face of an ending to a sparsely plucked melody (“Kukuasaan”), the momentum builds quickly. “Alkisah I” is a monumental prologue, nine minutes of multi-instrumentalist Wukir Suryadi and vocalist Rully Shabara on the attack and armed with gamelan-influenced time signatures, raucous percussion, and resonant shouts that move inexorably toward a supernova of electric guitar. Shabara take on everything from crooning to throat-singing throughout Alkisah.
Vocals dip into doom metal territory on “Menuju Muara” as it tells of a flight away from destruction. As it ends, metallic squeals fade into rushing water until the track’s abrupt end. Haunting chants echo in the open space of prideful “Istana”, eerie harmonies rising over a fog of electronic fuzz that grows thicker as the piece continues. “Kabau” is laced with somber bliss. Proverbs are spoken over a poignant guitar and stripped-down rhythms. The peace is short-lived as revolution erupts in “Fasih” and leads into the windswept regrets of tragic “Alkisah II”. Epilogue “Kiamat” hammers home the end of all things in a brief frenzy that comes to a sudden stop.
Senyawa subvert just about every overly essentializing label and production process that could be thrown at them and are better for it. They might make folk metal; they might make punk; they might be making music for audiences in Romania, Britain, or home in Yogyakarta. Whatever the case, the core of Alkisah is its story and the potency of the medium through which its tellers perform it. This is DIY from top to bottom, from means of distribution to the homemade instruments Suryadi builds and plays and including all the stylistic combinations in between. The resulting music is uniquely eccentric, totally unprecedented, and stronger for it.