Many things have changed in The Observatory’s camp since the long-running Singaporean band’s last album, a split with Japanese psych rockers Acid Mothers Temple in 2018. Now a three-piece of Yuen Chee Wai, Dharma and Cheryl Ong, and with a greater focus on improvisation, this isn’t quite the same group that released albums such as the monumental ‘Oscilla’. But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same: despite the new lineup, The Observatory are as uncompromising and singular as ever.
‘Authority Is Alive’ is the first recording released by the new lineup. Recorded live at the Singapore festival Playfreely in 2019, it features Japanese avant-garde legend Keiji Haino on vocals and guitar. And it’s another stellar release in a sprawling discography.
When asked about the band’s new improv-heavy direction, guitarist Dharma is quick to tell NME that they’re “still doing composed material”. He reveals that they’ve been working on new material since 2019, and were planning to record it with Bangkok-based electronic musician Koichi Shimizu for an album this year. They had even planned to fly Shimizu down to Singapore to record. “But COVID happened, and everything stopped,” Ong says.
It’s a good thing, then, that they happened to have a recording with Keiji Haino in the vaults, waiting to be released. But don’t mistake ‘Authority Is Alive’ for a stopgap. The album isn’t something they dug up out of the archives just to plug a hole in their schedule.
“We already had it in mind that we would release the recording if it sounded good,” Dharma clarifies. The Observatory liked the results, and Haino didn’t need much convincing either. Yuen recalls that “Haino-san was pretty happy with [the show]. Even when I was sending him off at the airport, he reiterated that he would like to see it released.”
Listening to ‘Authority Is Alive’, it’s not hard to see why Haino approved. It’s an impressive performance from all four, their group improvisation thrilling in its complexity and sustained intensity. Looking back on the show, Dharma reflects on how some musicians are capable of getting the best out of others.
“Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to play the way we did,” he says of Haino, likening his effect on The Observatory to how Miles Davis always managed to get the best out of his sidemen. “Some musicians can just make a band play better than they ever could play [on their own],” he says.
Dharma is selling his band a bit short. Listening to ‘Authority Is Alive,’ it’s clear that The Observatory push just as much as Haino pulls. It’s a group effort, and Yuen says that the gig was a case of both parties ushering each other into new territories.
What’s impressive about ‘Authority Is Alive’ is the way The Observatory even managed to play as well as they did, seeing as they also ran Playfreely itself. Switching between the different headspaces required of organising and performing wasn’t easy. “It was a complete work by itself,” Yuen says.
And juggling multiple responsibilities might have even helped them: “If we hadn’t been so stressed about organising the festival, the album might not have turned out the way it did,” Ong offers.
A welcome touch that emerges throughout ‘Authority Is Alive’ is The Observatory’s attempts to integrate more Asian and Southeast Asian musical elements in their improv practice. “We’ve been wanting to look more towards Asian sounds and influences, as opposed to always looking to the West,” Ong says, citing Indonesian gamelan and the rhythms of Indian Carnatic music as two threads that the band have been investigating.
“Without Keiji Haino, we wouldn’t have been able to play the way we did” – Dharma
This notion of looking beyond the West included an interrogation of the practice of free improvisation itself. “Haino-san also brought up this whole thing about ‘free improvisation’ or the idea of ‘free’,” Yuen recalls. “If what you play is free improv that sounds like another person doing free improv, then how free are you?”
The Observatory have spent some time thinking about this. Dharma believes that “very often [musicians] get too used to what they know as free improv”, pointing out that even free jazz has become a codified genre with a set of tropes and expectations.
“What is ‘free improv’ anymore?” Yuen asks, rhetorically. It’s an important question, but not one many can answer.
It’s fitting that The Observatory haven’t completely abandoned composition. Instead, they’ve been trying to combine the two in what Dharma calls “structured improv”. “I guess we have to do that because we don’t have a frontman anymore,” he says, laughing. But what the three of them have lost in former frontman Leslie Low’s departure, the band have gained in increased flexibility. A three-piece instrumental lineup gives The Observatory space to work with different musicians, teasing out new elements of their playing with each collaborator.
“It liberates us from the very rigid structure of a conventional band,” Yuen adds, “We’ve become a bit more adventurous in terms of trying new stuff.” The group have taken this freedom in their stride: Ong has started integrating elements of gamelan into her percussion setup, while both guitarists have been experimenting with everything from direct guitar signals to adding samplers and drum machines into their signal chains.
There’s more than just reclusive experimentation going on, too. Having been able to get back into the studio after Singapore’s COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed, the trio had been preparing for two online shows taking place in early October. Ong reveals that they were hoping to play two completely different sets “without killing ourselves too much”.
“If what you play is free improv that sounds like another person doing free improv, then how free are you?” – Yuen Chee Wai
Between the still-unrecorded material, new musical influences, and a greater willingness to experiment with instrumentation, there’s a lot to look forward to from The Observatory. For many acts, a collaboration with Keiji Haino would be the peak of their discography; for The Observatory, ‘Authority Is Alive’ is the flare that signals the start of a new era.
“I don’t want to keep doing the same thing, you know? I want to keep feeling excited,” Dharma says. Based on our conversation, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to be a problem any time soon.
Keiji Haino and The Observatory’s ‘Authority Is Alive’ is out now