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Polka Wars discovers strengths, weaknesses on ‘Bani Bumi’

Stanley Widianto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, July 10, 2019  /  05:04 pm
Polka Wars discovers strengths, weaknesses on ‘Bani Bumi’

In harmony: Indie rock band Polka Wars releases its second record after 2015 'Axis Mundi'. (Courtesy of Polka Wars/-)

Maturity is not always natural. It’s laborious, like cutting teeth. It’s earned, through acknowledged weaknesses and realized strengths. 

Jakarta’s indie rock band Polka Wars – composed of vocalist Karaeng Adjie, drummer/guitarist Giovanni Rahmadeva, guitarist Billy Saleh and bassist Xandega Tahajuansya – has come a long way. Since then, many roads have been traveled, many hours have been passed. 

So now we have Bani Bumi, the band’s second record after 2015's Axis Mundi. Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s musically competent. Harmony remains the band’s biggest strength; occasional bursts of sonic detours are also welcome. 

Sonic burst: 'Bani Bumi', a new album by Jakarta's indie rock band Polka Wars, Sonic burst: 'Bani Bumi', a new album by Jakarta's indie rock band Polka Wars, (Courtesy of Polka Wars/-)

But Bani Bumi suffers most from a lack of variety. In terms of weaknesses, it would complement Axis Mundi, a record that has variety, but little sonic continuity. Combine the two and I can’t even begin to tell you. 

And the quality that made Polka Wars, uh, Polka Wars is here, too: The members’ harmony. Each gets to write songs, some more than others, some collaborative. That they could make a distinct album with many voices informing it is really something.

What this means for the band is that it can cut a record — a fine one, too. Bani Bumi is bookended by an intro and outro titled “Bani” (Children) and “Bumi” (Earth) respectively, and if you play “Bani” after “Bumi,” you can hear the record reset itself. 

This little tidbit is scrumptious (it reminds me of singer and harpist Joanna Newsom’s album Divers) and it’s a microcosm of Polka Wars’ penchant for details, similar to the segue between the middling “Avatar” and “Suar” (Flare).

You can also hear it in the key change midway through the otherwise middling “Alkisah” (Story). The church organ that ends “Mandiri” (Independent). The bell that ends “Suar”. I could go on, but these small flourishes matter on an album that could use a clearer signifier.

The songs on Bani Bumi are definitely knottier and technically more tenuous than the ones on Axis Mundi. Though they still operate within their indie rock comfort zone, this is their maturity speaking. But often times, they meander, losing the fuller picture of the album — something that they’re most capable of making. 

Traces of improvement, however, should not be lost on the listeners: Karaeng’s vocals have taken a raspier, desperate register and inviting folk singer Sandrayati Fay for “Suar” was a wise move.

Lyrically, Bani Bumi is wordy — words are clearly intended to obfuscate meanings or at least to create alternative meanings. When they are clear, however, the results can sometimes stagger. “Terai”, not a word recognized by the KBBI dictionary, finds writer Billy ruminating on a divorce. His description is stark, poignant: “Dalam terang bintang/Kau hadiri perjamuan malam/Seketika /Ruang yang temaram/Menjadi saksi sunyi” (In the starlight/you’re present at dinner/all of a sudden/the twilit room/is a silent witness), Karaeng sings. 

There are also songs about faith (“Suar”), romance (“Bunga” [Flower] and “Alkisah”), and even class consciousness like “Mapan” (Wealthy), a straightforward indie rock cut with an indelible hook.

But the band saved the best for last. “Rekam Jejak” (Recordings) finds Karaeng’s voice soaring above the busy guitars — the song sounds anthemic and the group vocals help, too. “Temaram” (Twilight) is a solo Giovanni Rahmadeva cut, over five minutes of dreamy guitars, he sings Polka Wars’ most affecting song—it’s emotional and very lovely.

Strengths and weaknesses make Polka Wars. Though it errs on the side of caution on Bani Bumi, the album allows the band to explore new nuances in its music: the little details, the continuity. If the band decides to cut a new record, something else in the music will change. It did this time. (ste)

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