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Album review: ‘Brønshøj’ by Senyawa

Marcel Thee
Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Fri, January 13, 2017 | 10:12 am
Album review: ‘Brønshøj’ by Senyawa

Senyawa during Tanah Air concert at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta (Instagram.com/cantsaynotohope/Muhammad Asranur)

Senyawa is one of Indonesia’s proudest cultural exports. The avant-garde musical duo’s “success” has been invaluable. They have played shows in countries worldwide, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland — to name a few — to actual local audiences from those countries instead of just Indonesian expats.

They have also released acclaimed records globally and received coverage from respectable publications.

They have done all of this playing their uncompromising music — a minimalist version of art-rock that utilizes only two instruments: Wukir Suryadi’s bambu wukir and Solet (homemade electro-acoustic stringed instruments run through assorted effect pedals) and Rully Shabara Herman’s mutating vocalizing, which goes from subhuman to machine-like.

It is a career that any artist, certainly Indonesian musicians, dream of — and Senyawa has made it their reality. On their latest and most publicized record, Brønshøj (Puncak), or peak in English, the duo released their most focused record yet. It takes the guttural, unfiltered quality of their previous works and shapes it into something that feels strongly cohesive. While it certainly is far from sounding commercial, the record’s sense of linearity makes it Senyawa’s most accessible release, front-to-back, to date.

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Released by Cejero, an independent record label from Copenhagen, Denmark, the record was recorded at the label’s warehouse in Brønshøj, Denmark, in 2015 in just a few days, and was mostly improvised, built on ideas and concepts thought out by the duo.

The album was released in an edition of 300 copies on black vinyl in reversed cardboard covers. Its cover is a strongly evocative hand-screened print by Danish visual artist Kasper Lynge Jensen.

The album as a whole leans more toward the ambient-driven side of the band, evoking something that is less about primal attacks and more about sculpting an aural wall of slowly lurking temperament.

Mind you, it is still a menacing kind of temperament; Rully’s voice moves from snoring monster sensations to shaman styled chants to completely inhuman (and even playful).

With only five tracks (four long tracks, one short), the record provides a strong variety of sounds from his throat and stomach.

Opener “Brønshøj 1” is all about that growl, with Rully bowling out a sonic equivalent of one really, really long burp (no joke), layering these kinds of voices on top of each other while Wukir’s string work brims the atmosphere with saw-like buzz and ambience; staying behind for the most part but never not painting the scene.

The same mood is sustained throughout the song, adding to a feeling of uneasiness that the band does so well.

“Brønshøj 2” opens with the echoing sound of Wukir’s instruments, lurching slowly-but-confidently forward as more processed strings come in. This time, Wukir takes the spotlight, with Rully providing nuance with his prayer-like faraway yelps — distanced, ghostly and spiritual.

It is one of the band’s most immediate tracks, and in a way, the record’s most unnerving. Though the strings still build itself through dissonance tones and notes, its floating nature harkens back to the soundscape work of ambient artists.

Similarly, “Brønshøj 4” structures itself with some light percussion that sounds somewhat traditionally Indonesian and some bamboo-string work, the swirly movements of which could also — very wrongly — make non-Indonesians consider the band post-traditionalist (a dim view that the band has to take in stride as their popularity grows abroad).

Here, Wukir’s strings certainly sound a tiny bit “Indonesian”, but even more oriental and post-Classical. Meanwhile, Rully comes in and out of the occasion, providing animalistic quasi-shouts as the song draws to a close.

Again, the song is content on resting rather calmly, letting its mood build as it progresses.

The one track on the record that comes closest to the band’s more primal early works is the closer, “Brønshøj 5”, which takes the layering string style of “4” but utilizes more of Rully’s cavemen callbacks. Here, the two musicians feel most in-sync, interacting deeply with each other. As Wukir’s strings swell high, so do Rully’s vocals.

The song also sustains an uncomfortable dissonance for most of its run time — even if its main note drones the same pluck throughout. It buzzes like a fly over a carcass, sounding more restless and nicely discomforting as it gets closer to its aim.

Brønshøj is a much-welcomed introduction to Senyawa and the Indonesian underground. Whether it can be considered the band’s best work depends on how harsh or inviting you are. It is certainly the band’s most thought out and focused work yet.

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