Keiji Haino & The Observatory – ‘Authority Is Alive’ review: thrilling and vital group improvisation

Avant-garde titans clash and collaborate with expectedly exciting results

Recorded live at Singapore’s Playfreely Festival in 2019, ‘Authority Is Alive’ is something of a pairing made in avant-garde heaven. For any fan of experimental rock, “The Observatory meet Keiji Haino” almost sells itself. Sure, there’s always the risk of improv groupings being lesser than the sum of their parts, but that’s not the case here. ‘Authority Is Alive’ lives up to expectations, and then some.

It starts with the inimitable Haino front and centre, declaiming a poem. Dharma, Cheryl Ong and Yuen Chee Wai – the three Singaporean musicians that form the current iteration of The Observatory – slowly construct around him a wicked brew of jagged guitar figures and freeform drumming. The music brims with considered intensity, every movement deliberate and thought out. And then, just as it seems like things are going to kick into high gear, the foursome pull back, bringing proceedings back down to a simmer.

On ‘Authority Is Alive’, guitarists Dharma, Yuen and Haino create multi-layered, prickly guitar soundscapes that are incredibly dense with sound and texture. All three have complementary but different styles, and each occupies his own sonic space. That they manage to navigate around each other while never stepping on any toes is testament to their prowess. When they come together during the more intense moments, it’s immensely satisfying. It’s something like the musical equivalent of crossing the streams in Ghostbusters, with equally explosive results.

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Ong’s contribution is perhaps not as overtly attention-grabbing, but she’s arguably the most crucial part of the sonic brew. Her drumming isn’t flashy, and it isn’t a tour-de-force of energy or whirlwind prowess. But she provides ‘Authority Is Alive’ with its all-important fundamental impetus, all while approaching the drumkit in a manner that’s pleasingly out of the standard rock idiom. Even when she does lock into a more recognisable beat, the patterns mostly steer well away from the usual tropes. She possesses a keen familiarity with each element of her kit and its rhythmic and sonic possibilities, something that’s evident throughout the performance.

Group interplay is where ‘Authority Is Alive’ shines. Each musician’s awareness of what the others are doing and their collective control of dynamics is impressive. It’s a restrained, knotty, and complex performance, and there are moments where it’s hard to believe that the show was entirely improvised. The ease with which they come together and drift apart is quite magical. They’re comfortable with occupying separate corners of the sonic canvas, playing off each other and engaging in call-and-response. But they’re just as capable of coiling tightly around each other, surging with an elemental, concerted power that belies the unplanned nature of the performance.

And that’s what makes ‘Authority Is Alive’ special. Yes, it’s an improv album with texturally complex and multi-layered music, and yes, there’s nary a conventional “tune” in earshot. But while it’s difficult, it’s never off-puttingly abstract. It never disappears into self-obsessive wankery, even during its most discombobulated moments. ‘Authority Is Alive’ possesses the immediacy and vitality of the most thunderous and life-affirming rock music, all heaving guitar amplifiers and controlled chaos.

Over the album’s 22 minutes, The Observatory and Keiji Haino create improvised music that showcases what talented musicians can achieve in such a setting. It’s an example of steely-eyed energy and musical alchemy, four musicians pushing each other forward and taking everything that comes out of it in their stride. The results are intoxicating, gripping, and more than a bit exhilarating.

Albums often offer either immediate gratification or slow-burning satisfaction, but ‘Authority Is Alive’ manages to be both. As an improvised album of rare quality, it rewards attentive listening, with many of its finer qualities only becoming evident upon repeat listens. But it’s also remarkably gripping, holding the listener’s attention from the moment Haino speaks into the microphone until the crowd applause fades out at the end. It’s lightning in a bottle, and a no-brainer for adventurous listeners.

Details

The Observatory Keiji Haino album 2020 Authority is Alive
  • Release date: October 7
  • Record label: Ujikaji Records
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