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Irvan Sembiring, Indonesian metal pioneer, dead at 51

M. Taufiqurrahman
M. Taufiqurrahman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, February 16, 2021  /  05:00 pm
Irvan Sembiring, Indonesian metal pioneer, dead at 51

Irvan Sembiring (left), the lead guitarist of the thrash band Rotor, poses for a photo with drummer Abu Bakar Bufthaim (center) and bass player Yudha Pranyoto. (The Jakarta Post/Rotor official)

Irvan Sembiring, singer, guitarist and the brain behind the seminal Jakarta thrash metal band Rotor, who helped form the blueprint for Indonesia’s extreme music scene, died on Tuesday. He was 51.

His family said in a statement that Irvan had come to stay overnight at his family’s home in Cinere, South Jakarta, and was found unresponsive in the morning. He is survived by his wife Indah and his four children.

Irvan’s sudden passing has shocked friends and family, as well as the country’s legion of metalheads, who have long considered him one of the most respected figures in the country’s metal scene.

The Jakarta Post was in contact with Irvan late on Monday during which he spoke of plans to travel to Pakistan on a religious trip. After leaving the music industry in the late 1990s, Irvan spent most of his time studying Islam and, over the past decade, traveling the world preaching to fellow Muslims.

His faith-motivated travel was, in a way, a continuation of his youthful ambition to travel and conquer the world as a thrash metal musician.

In 1993, shortly after opening for Metallica at Lebak Bulus Stadium in South Jakarta, which ended in the biggest riot the country had seen since the Malari student protest in 1974, Irvan packed up his bags and traveled to California with the intention of releasing his brand of speed-driven metal music on an American record label.

With no contacts in the US and little knowledge of how the American music industry worked, Irvan and his bandmate Yudha Pranyoto were forced to couch surf and returned to Indonesia after only six months.

With a reformed Rotor, Irvan recorded another three critically acclaimed metal records and produced a number of best-selling metal compilation albums, which further cemented his reputation as Indonesia’s metal Svengali.

Irvan’s biggest contribution, however, was Rotor’s debut album Behind the 8th Ball, released in late 1992, the nation’s first professionally produced metal record. It not only contained the fastest guitar riffing in the Indonesian metal scene, it also had some with some of the most complex musical arrangements.

Dead set on selling the album internationally, Irvan wrote all the lyrics in English – the first time an Indonesian record had entirely English songs.

“My English was not good back then, but it felt odd to have music that extreme and me growling in Indonesian,” Irvan told the Post in a conversation in October of last year.

Because of the New Order regime’s strict censorship rules, Rotor’s record label, Airo, was barred from promoting the album until label owner Setiawan Djody managed to bring Metallica to Jakarta for their first-ever concert in the city, as part of the Wherever I May Roam Tour. Djody believed that having Rotor perform with Metallica would improve the band's standing, and it did.

Although Metallica had not agreed to have an opening act, Djody managed to persuade the members of the San Francisco metal giant to give Rotor a 60-minute opening slot. However, Rotor’s new drummer Arif Azis, an Indonesian transplant who was living in Florida before being called home for the gig, was only able to learn to play five songs from Behind the 8th Ball. Rotor finished their opening set after only 20 minutes.

It was after this performance that angry metalheads who had failed to gain entry to Lebak Bulus Stadium started to riot.

It was also reported that James Hetfield of Metallica was so impressed with Rotor’s performance that the band threw out its setlist and instead played only the heaviest songs in its catalogue.

Lead singer of Indonesia's metal band Irvan Sembiring (second from right) speaks during a discussion to celebrate the seminal thrash record Behind the 8th Ball in South Jakarta on Jan. 9, 2021.Lead singer of Indonesia's metal band Irvan Sembiring (second from right) speaks during a discussion to celebrate the seminal thrash record Behind the 8th Ball in South Jakarta on Jan. 9, 2021. (The Jakarta Post/Courtesy of Elevation Records)

Irvan recounted that story to a younger metal audience in early January during the release party for the vinyl version of Behind the 8th Ball. “This album never had a proper release party – not even a press conference in 1993. So consider this a long-overdue introduction,” Irvan told the crowd during the event.

Many who have long admired Irvan's work ethics and vision said that he had left a lasting legacy in the country's music scene.

“He is ambitious, progressive, visionary and one of the hardest working metalheads. He always wanted to be different than his peers,” said Wendy Putranto, former editor of Rolling Stone Indonesia and chronicler of the late 1990s metal scene, upon hearing of Irvan’s passing on Tuesday.

Wendy said Irvan’s decision to relocate to America, however brief, was proof of his visionary genius.

Hip hop artist Herry Sutresna of the Homicide collective, who name-checked Rotor’s most popular song “Peluit Phobia” in his latest record Demi Masa, said Irfan showed him what was possible in the context of the local music scene.

“He pointed the way for boundless possibility in music. He opened the gate for the most extreme innovation in local music. And he succeeded in doing that considering the sorry state of the music industry in early-1990s Indonesia,” Herry said.

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