For all the rhetorical weight thrown behind the prospect of an emerging synergy between dance and experimental music over the last few years, reality has tended to unfold along more cynical and tawdry lines. Perhaps it was a little utopian to expect a subculture with deep investments in the notion of functionality-as-virtue and the celebration of the purported wisdom of crowds to make serious common cause with one characterized by more than 60 years of accumulated aversion to use value and conventional wisdom.
The problem with positing a trend that depends on a tricky aesthetic balancing act is that most art simply isn’t very good, but insofar as we can accept that, we’re free to go deep with those pieces that truly deliver. In that spirit, Metasplice’s recently released self-titled double LP is a reminder of why we we shouldn’t lower our expectations for electronic music in 2015. It isn’t going to meet you halfway, but anyone who expects the utopian and the humane to sing in harmony is a poor student of history.
I can’t claim to know precisely how the members of Metasplice conceived of the scope and scale of this record while they were making it, but they happen to be some of my favorite people to listen to records with, which is high praise in my world. During the gestation of this material we spent quite a lot of time hanging out and doing just that, mapping a set of shared affinities that ranges from field recordings, phone pranks, midcentury studio electronics, and d-beat to the most gnarled corners of Hanson Records’ catalogue. I like to imagine that I can hear each of those working in some esoteric fashion on the finished product, but more than anything, Metasplice sounds like itself.
It’s significant that they chose to release this record through _bruxist, one of their two in-house imprints. The cryptic, techno-baiting cuts they issued on Morphine Records between 2012 and 2014 displayed a perverse interest in toying with the expectations of zeitgeist-mining selectors, an ear for mangled quasi-hooks, and an ability to hold a prism up to the most unlikely and seemingly unweildy assemblages of corroded scrap metal, medical waste, and glowing alien sludge to make them appear momentarily svelte and sophisticated. If that was the whole story, Metasplice would still be a top-shelf purveyor of parallel universe DJ tools; however, as is the case with many contemporary artists rooted in America’s experimental scene, the full story is much more complex and it’s largely told on private label releases.
Last year, _bruxist released “Live in Japan” and “Public Assembly/Steel Drums,” two phenomenally bizarre cassette-only collections of live Metasplice sets which seem in hindsight to document the initial exploration of the territory on which this album stakes its claim. On those live recordings, they come across like a pair of mad scientists populating the soundstage with grotesque, reductive automata, and casually watching as they fail to construct a civilization. Heard in situ, this style is even more striking. Among my favorite memories of 2014 is the start of a Metasplice set flash-freezing a local afterhours, leaving everyone looking as though they had suddenly found themselves teetering on the edge of a cliff. So much of a night out is about trying to feel time stop and we need moments like that to remind us that there’s more than one way to pull it off.
Compared to their live recordings, Metasplice sets the particularity of their style into even sharper relief by dispensing with any pretense of, like, “taking you on a journey.” The tracks arrayed symmetrically across its four sides begin and end abruptly, each a fixed window on a process which unfolds with no interest in whether or not anyone is listening. It might feel voyeuristic to hear these pieces if they didn’t sound so inhuman; instead, the impression is much closer to the uncanny.
For all their outward prickliness, the results can be startlingly lovely: “A2” approaches the desolate, depopulated noir of Dread-era Wolf Eyes and the glistening austerity of Dopplereffekt at their most opaque. The various components of “B2” briefly cohere into vacuum-sealed funk pitched somewhere between Unicorn Hard-On’s recent productions and the most deconstructed of Hessle sides, and then drift out of alignment again, each individual element blooming into something lurid and distended. “C2” reimagines Jean-Claude Risset as a brain in a jar struggling to start a car via telekinesis. Enormous, gritty plumes of non-kick, n-dimensional marble mazes feeding massive garbage disposals, infinite lattices of hydraulic tennis matches—it’s difficult to describe this stuff without waxing a bit Terrence McKenna, but if you’ve got some sort of problem with that, then I’m afraid we may have fundamentally incompatible notions of a good time.
When I first saw the Javanese duo Senyawa perform in Berlin last year, vocalist Rully Shabara prefaced one song with an anecdote regarding the time his village was destroyed by a volcano.
It was a tantalizing bit of context and helped anchor their abstract mix of traditional Javanese music, death metal power and operatic melodrama to reality. I mean, it wasn’t that surprising to hear the story about the volcano, because the music sounds like an alternately shaken and stoic reaction to tectonic shifts and natural disasters. The graceful sonic force they wield is matched by their physical presence—one which left a huge impression after seeing them live. Actually, the impression was so precious to me for a time that I deliberately avoided listening to recordings of their music. I feared that the disembodied nature of the recorded medium would suck the marrow out of my memories.
Their recent LP, Menjadi, released on Rabih Beaini’s Morphine Records, proves my fears were unfounded. It might seem like a stretch for a relatively obscure band releasing records on an outpost like Morphine, but I can see Senyawa crossing over in a big way. I picture them blowing up in the States and opening for Sunn O))). It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s something strangely accessible about Senyawa. They’re just too good to ignore. And too raw.
A lot of that has to do with the singing of vocalist Shabara, who tends to look out from the stage eyes wide and animated by a sense of urgency. His arms twist and twine like searching snakes, while he traverses a broad range of vocal moods. Keiji Haino gets you in the ballpark, but Shabara’s octave-jumping gymnastics can’t be described by influences. His baritone projects the types of harmonics you’d associate with throat singing. Add a dash of reverb and he’s carving out the cavernous spaces you hear on tracks like “Bala.” On “Menjadi Jadi” (which you can hear in this mix) he sounds like a mud bath bubbling at a hot spring; or later, a schizophrenic chorus of plotting whisperers. Shabara inhabits a cast of characters befitting the scope of an epic poem, but he doesn’t shift shapes to escape himself. It’s more like he’s possessed. Or perhaps he can simply channel other spirits. And while I’ve understood exactly none of the words being sung, at no point does the narrative feel elusive. What’s being communicated is more elemental.
Wukir Suryadi is the other half of Senyawa. He builds his own instruments out of bamboo and plays them with the private intimacy a craftsman has with his creations. His weapon of choice is based on a Madagascan derivation of a tube zither, called a valiha. It’s a long, cylindrical pipe sheathed in rows of metal and bamboo strings. Christened the bambuwukir, it’s a beast of an instrument, about five feet tall and capable of an extremely wide range of sounds. It’s the perfect foil for Shabara’s versatile vocal chords. On “Hadirlah Suci,” the rhythms clatter like a bag of bones thrown down a spiral staircase, while “Bala” meditates on bowed, microtonal drones. On “Kayu” it sounds like Suryadi is playing right next to your ear. Every creak, rattle and buzz is vividly present in the mix.
Actually, Menjadi is defined by this breathing-down-your-neck proximity. Where their live show uses physicality to enunciate the subtleties of their music, Menjadi focuses the lens onto the minutiae of their craft.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue. The cover photo was taken by Anthony Tran for OCCII.