Senyawa – ‘Alkisah’ review: Indonesian avant-garde titans continue to evolve

Yogyakarta duo kickstart their second decade with a portentous collection of apocalyptic hymns

Rully Shabra Herman and Wukir Suryadi, better known as Senyawa, have been together for a decade. By the 10-year mark, most avant-garde bands would have settled into a groove, churning out by-the-numbers albums designed to meet expectations instead of subverting them. Fortunately, there’s no such stasis for the Yogyakarta duo.

‘Alkisah’ is a bit of an adventure for the band. For one, Wukir’s custom bambu wukir (literally, “Wukir’s bamboo”), an instrument that defined Senyawa’s sound, is nowhere to be heard on the album’s seven songs. But this hasn’t diluted Senyawa’s atavistic, earth-shattering power one bit. In its place are all-new custom bamboo instruments, opening up new avenues of industrial clang and unearthly string tones.

As if new instrumentation wasn’t enough, on ‘Alkisah’ Senyawa also add a new narrative element to their music, putting the eerily pertinent apocalyptic tale of a crumbling nation front and centre. Then, there’s the bold decision to decentralise ‘Alkisah’’s release, which has seen 44 labels worldwide release the album, all with their own packaging and bonus remixes. Many things could be said of Rully and Wukir, but “conservative” isn’t one of them.

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Forty-second opener ‘Kekuasaan’ establishes the album’s theme in a single line, delivered in a graceful arc by vocalist Rully: “What is the meaning of power when the end is at hand?” The early moments of ‘Alkisah I’ continue the low-key start, but the calm doesn’t last long – once the song’s pulsing loop kicks in, things very quickly ramp up.

Percussive clanging and Wukir’s custom instruments pan across the stereo field, pummelling the listener and ratcheting up the tension with each passing minute. Concurrently, vocalist Rully sets the scene for the unnamed country at the heart of ‘Alkisah’’s narrative: “This is the tale of a country / torn apart by envy / shocked by its own greed and arrogance.”

Previously released single ‘Istana’ takes full advantage of the duo’s command of titanic, subterranean dread. Atop massively distorted drones, Rully runs through his vocal gamut, painting a grim picture of a “black pond / saturated with the remains of war and conflict / scattered bloodstains / the blood of nameless humans”. The grand, elemental unity of earth (Wukir) and sky (Rully’s vocals) marks ‘Istana’ as a defining song, not just for ‘Alkisah’, but probably the band’s entire career.

What has always set Senyawa apart from other po-faced avant-garde groups is their willingness to occasionally let some light in. ‘Alkisah’ is no different. Whether it’s the Minang proverbs set to music on ‘Kabau’ or ‘Fasih’’s surprising alternate-universe rap-metal, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s to Senyawa’s credit that even potentially comedic moments like ‘Fasih’’s downtuned thump and moshpit-ready delivery of “the only good fascist is a dead fascist” remain captivating due to the sheer seriousness with which the duo treat them.

In some ways, ‘Alkisah’ is a summation and evolution of everything that Senyawa have created so far. The percussive attack that defined their early work is as present as ever, albeit channelled in more abstract directions. Simultaneously, the heft of Wukir’s distorted stringed instruments continues the drone and experimental metal excursions of ‘Sujud’ and ‘Bima Sakti’. Tying it all together is the duo’s mastery of suffocating tension and multifaceted moods, honed over a decade’s worth of relentless touring and studio work.

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‘Alkisah’ draws to a close, and the nation falls into ruin, “slaughtered by greed and burned by hate”. As we are reminded that “the end is nigh”, it’s impossible not to wonder what Senyawa will build from the ruins of the old country. But one thing’s for sure: the pair have started their second decade the same way they ended their first, pushing themselves forward and blazing the sort of trail that makes them a band without equal.

Details

Senyawa new album Alkisah
  • Release date: February 21
  • Record label: Various
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