Last year, as reported on TMT, Arrington de Dionyso released a cassette called Naga Suara. It was pretty weird, made up mostly of throat-sung splurge, skronking horn freakout, and freakish rhythm. Now comes the relatively more accessible Suara Naga under Dionyso’s Malaikat Dan Singa alias. It’s only fairly weird, especially if you’re already familiar with the self-titled album from this project released in 2009. One reason the disc’s more accessible than the cassette is that there are songs. Okay, so they’re songs that make use of throat singing, skronking bass clarinet, and, er, lyrics in Indonesian. But they’re songs nonetheless, and some of them are kind of catchy.
As before, Dionyso’s band (which features K labelmates Angelo Spencer and in-house producer Karl Blau) comes on full-force with its mutant Beefheartian blues and Indonesian extreme metal vocals. That is, it asks us to think at least about the relationship between extreme metal vocals, throat singing, Indonesian rock, scorched desert rock, free jazz, and much more besides. The album’s title apparently translates as “The Dragon’s Voice,” and that seems as apt a description as any of the fiery vocalizing and blowing found in its grooves.
The title and cover art also suggest an ongoing obsession with entities magical, mythical, and diabolical, a trait that can be traced back to Dionyso’s work with Old Time Relijun. Shapeshifting, shamanic practices, animal possession, and magnetism: all of these come to mind as one looks at the paintings and listens — or, rather, is exposed to — this music. It’s music of transformation, new registers, and, if you missed out on Malaikat, is truly unlike anything you’ve heard before. Dionyso sounds like a man possessed on opener “Kerasukan” (which translates, appropriately, as “possessed by a spirit”), as if some vile entity is speaking through him. Things get even spookier when, halfway through the track, the vocals develop into a kind of call-and-response routine — but who is calling whom? From where? To what?
On “Aku di Penjara,” the vocals are less hostile but arguably more disturbing, a half-wheezed, half-crooned whisper into the listener’s ear. This is the kind of sleazy creep you don’t want leaving a message on your machine; you feel sullied just listening. Then, seemingly looped female backing vocals start doo-dooing away like a distant, chilled, dubby take on “Walk On The Wild Side.” A chiming desert guitar adds Morricone-like space but only increases the sense of distance and despair.
For much of the album, the bass clarinet, throat singing, and Indonesian lyrics become sonic manifestations of Dionyso’s visual art, which can be found on virtually all his album covers and in such publications as Yeti and Prism Index. People change into animals, angels, or demons; masks and wings are donned; chants are sung, secret registers droned. The overall experience is one of summoning-up, of sound as magick, music’s ritual origins revealed. At times it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, at other times freakishly scary. (These are stock responses when we hear humans speaking in tongues or being spoken through by others; check out the recent Fringe episode where Olivia Dunham’s body is taken over by William Bell — silly and uncanny at the same time.)
But Suara Naga is also damn funky in places (and funk’s a word you’d never throw at Naga Suara, its tape namesake). Although Dionyso is fond of utilizing a stop-start dynamism and a clipped vocal style in many of his pieces — two features that further invite the comparison to extreme or death metal — he also adds a more flowing element to certain tracks, such as “Bianglala,” which sets off on a guitar and bass riff that hints at funkadelia and works through to a spiky post-punk denouement. “Madu Mahadahsyat” also rides out on a catchy groove that suggests possession of a different, dancier kind.
When “Bianglala” (“Rainbow”) is followed by the vaguely Middle Eastern sonorities of “Bianglala Batin” (“Inner Rainbow”), one is also put in mind of the modal Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke. “Wada Rohani,” a track seemingly about the search for spiritual contact, mixes the best of both worlds as it develops a droning, drawn-out modality into funky liftoff. Dionyso’s sense of variety and dynamics is masterful throughout, and, providing that the listener is willing to be possessed by his auditory spell, there is never a dull moment. Incantory, spellbinding, sinister, and surreal, Suara Naga is the work of a highly original mind, a man unafraid to don a demon’s mask and speak with a dragon’s tongue. Whether Malaikat dan Singa allows Arrington de Dionyso to attain the kind of truth-seeking communicative possibilities he has previously spoken of is questionable, but there is little doubt that he knows how to transfix and transform.