The centuries-old Javanese and Balinese style gamelan is a crucial sonic and conceptual focal point for OOIOO, and on Gamel, it busts their sound wide open. The album’s still chock full of the band’s weird effects and liquid-noise production, but its beating heart is the interaction between gamelan metallophone and the human voice. This means newfound liveliness through liveness, in that much of the music is clearly derived from the improvised work of a live band, honed into weaving, interactive movements. The arrangements are genius and meticulous, the band’s command of space and timing resulting in IMAX 3D OST sounds coming from only a few sources. Their instruments feed off one another, reacting to a change in the rhythm or the introduction of a new voice with ravenous attention, as if propelled by some forward momentum within the project (and that force often sounds like insistent, ringing mallet strikes). It’s the sound of a band with an Idea of themselves.
Gamel is in part a means for self-revision. According to Thrill Jockey, the mastermind band leader, formerly called Yoshimi P-we, now goes solely by Yoshimi or Yoshimio — the “o” standing for “a circle, infinite and elusive.” The simple/deep circular symbolism of this slight variation on her name is central to the record, which collapses time in on itself: nearly half of the tracks on Gamel are reimaginations, switch-ups, or mish-mashes of old OOIOO songs with a gamelan overtone. Even still, Yoshimi’s sentimental and technical fascination with the “ancient spirit” of gamelan runs through the album not like a bag of new tricks, but like this was the kind of music-making the band could’ve always had in mind. Three of these songs come from 2009’s stellar psych-rock blowout Armonica Hewa, but now sound simultaneously tighter and spacier, while “Gamel Uma Umo” is a hypnotizing rapid-fire take on “UMA” and “UMO” from 2006’s Taiga. The old isn’t brought back to life anew, but as a tweaked memory and under the same name (or a slight variation, with “Gamel” added beforehand).
The metallophones sound variously menacing (“Pebarongan”), freewheeling (“Don Ah”), and powerful (“Gamel Udahah”). The voices, the guitars, the drums, the keys, the soundstage all seem tuned to the creeping and fun chiming of gamelan, which is tuned to itself. The album’s most triumphant song (and conventionally song-like song, replete with chant breakdowns and something like three dope guitar riffs) is “Jesso Testa.” It’s also one of the shortest tracks, sandwiched between two spacier, psychier jams that have just as much life to them, especially in the vocals. Elsewhere, we get fat bass loops, elegiac trumpets, and screeching solos, like OOIOO are striving to sustain as many styles as they can within gamelan. The percussive work that drives the album forward is alternately complemented and rerouted by the band’s massive array of vocal intonations. Just as much as the metallophones, every track is moved by the emotional work of Yoshimi and company’s wailing, whispering, playful vocals.
What makes Gamel such a mesmerizing record is its deep sense of play. “Don Ah,” the opener and most captivating song, hones in on the excitement of not knowing what comes next, getting used to not knowing, and then remembering how to forget. It begins with a single mallet strike, followed by coos that seem to cheer on the mallet. The chiming picks up momentum until it falls forward into a rhythm all on its own, then joined by the rest of the band, who just fucking groove on it. From there, the rest of Gamel unfolds like a continuous movement, speeding up, slowing down, chasing itself.
It’s an album that demands to be heard closely — otherwise the drone of the metallophone and the songs’ constant motion could probably feel exhausting, when it’s actually a trip (and trippy). You get the sense that OOIOO has deep (inner/outer) space behind their music, far-out speculation about “The Universe” and “Memory” and how we, me, you, they fit (or maybe this is all because I can’t hear gamelan without seeing this). The conclusion is sleepy sequel “Gamel Ulda,” a lullaby of jazzy organs and field recordings. After all the breakdowns and triumphs and trips to space, we finally arrive at a backyard. Birds chirping, dogs barking, wind in the trees. It’s a comedown, a return to the present or maybe the future after a long, emotional, ecstatic trip through old music, old styles. You can hear it in the album’s constant expansion, its little detours, its revisions: the persistence of memory for a band with a long history. Gamel is OOIOO remembering themselves and what they do best, which sounds like something they’ve never done before.