“Art should not please. On the contrary, Art has to show where it hurts in our societies, in our world. We urgently need the courage back to pick up this role of disturbers again,” Erasmus Prize winner, festival director and curator, Frie Leysen, exhorts in her closing keynote address at the Australian Theatre Forum last year. The Observatory has sustained this courage, veterans who have held this vanguard for over 15 years. Reprising the role of ‘disturbers’, the experimental-rock outfit has just released their anticipated album, August is the cruellest.
Taking their title from the opening line “April is the cruellest month, breeding” of modernist poet T.S. Eliot’s opus The Waste Land, of which his poetry the band cites as an influence, the band transposes the month in the line, anchoring the album’s local contextuality while making key connections with the literary import of the Western Canon. On the heels of our semi-centennial celebrations, the album is an immediate counterpoint to the prevailing spirit and sentiment widespread through the city. The album paints a landscape of desolation, the infertile and impotent wasteland we are mired in. Chatacterised as “a work of political noise”, the group blends psych-rock elements with strong metal influences, distended upon reverb-laden guitar strings, and chopped up with complex time signatures. The noise tears through our cold, dull, and sedated society. It surfaces all the fault lines, revealing the rifts of burning lava and glowing embers underneath.
The album opens with the eponymous track, starting with haunting vocals uttering the refrain, “You stuffed me up with straw”, another nod to Eliot’s poetry, The Hollow Men, echoing both an empty and desolate existence, while stoking with dry stalks the flames of the track’s eventual explosive crescendo. The second track immediately follows with a juxtaposition of the energy and heat of the first. “Brutal blues” is a cold, trudging track, laced with hollow whistles and melancholic strings, exhausted by lyrical refrains of expiring flames and life. The two-track contrast echoes Eliot’s own juxtaposition of fire and cold common in his poetry.
“The Observatory marks an attempt to reconcile the blurring impresses of the East and West, or at least a more lucid awareness that we are lodged in that nexus.”
“Wait for the real storm” raises the apocalyptic heat of the aural landscape. Through the metal screeches, sonic dissonance, repetitive progressions, and the lyrical promise/threat of a coming storm, we are slowly roasted, along with “the parched eviscerate soil” in this burning Pentecostal fire. Perhaps, we might even wake and taste the plastic melting in “these pacifiers stuck inside our mouths”, and begin to wag our censored tongues, and stir against an insensate muteness. Following the two-track contrast, “A ghost to you” is more ethereal and melancholic, with sparser instrumentation, so that the tragic address to an absent partner sinks much deeper, as you wander like a spectre, a hollow man, across the empty land.
“Everything is vibration” is a key track at establishing the group’s effort to return to or construct a Southeast Asian or Singaporean sound, and also to refuse a sole dependency on the Occident for influence. The lyrics in the track are taken from contemporary experimental Chinese poet and sound artist Yan Jun’s book of poems, You Jump To Another Dream. Eliot’s poetry also refers heavily to the East, especially to Sanskrit literature in The Waste Land, as modernist poetry begins to find weight, techniques, and possibilities in cultures other than their own. The band makes similar efforts in the closing track, “The weight of it all”, by featuring traditional Chinese instruments like the guzheng and dizi. It echoes their previous project Continuum, where they experimented with the gamelan tradition. The Observatory marks an attempt to reconcile the blurring impresses of the East and West, or at least a more lucid awareness that we are lodged in that nexus.
With the release of The Observatory’s ‘political noise’ into the music ether, there have also been some gripes of late about the apolitical nature of our music scene, and perhaps there are some comments to be made.
August is the cruellest is ‘noise’ first before it is ‘political’. It is primarily its sound: the distortion, the wailing guitars, the old rock and metal soundscapes. And it is from sound that the band builds the evocation of particular emotions, the feelings of ennui, futility, and desolation. After which, the degree of its politicality depends largely on the push by the lyrical and textual component of the music, and the listener’s own context, to connect with the music’s political nodes. The Observatory makes such artful and subtle slants, of which more obvious ones include the album’s title and the opening stanzas to “Wait for the real storm”. After all, music, by composition, isn’t political. It is necessarily secondary to and proceeding after the music. It is the moods, feelings, and sentiments stirred by the music first before they can be employed, if so wished, towards a political utility. It is part of what is so great about music; that it is unlike writing an article or an essay, because it is fundamentally in tune with one of the underlying tenets of art – show, don’t tell. It is then perhaps unfair, if not absurd, to level a charge, however ambivalent, at music being apolitical.
However, there are some potholes that are somewhat inevitable with the outfit’s experimental vitality. While The Observatory manages to invoke the Eliot’s 19th century modernist poems to comment on our current society, there doesn’t seem to be enough of a counterpoint by other influences, whether Southeast Asian or otherwise. The group makes an effort to include Chinese instruments, as well as draw reference to Jun’s contemporary Chinese poetry, but by being featured too little on the album, they are unavoidably dwarfed by the already heavy weight and influence of Eliot’s. The effusive lines of The Waste Land seem to have come to dominate the tone of the album, and overshadow its contextual slants, impress, and effectiveness.
But reconciling already deep-set influences in a post-colonial, post-modern age, and awakening a lucidity of the dull and comforting apathy of our society, these are some of the batons that experimental and avant-garde music and art aim to carry, and of which, succeeding to different extents, The Observatory has been carrying, album after album, for a long time. It is perhaps how Leysen describes the value of such forms of art: “Their visions are often eye-openers, electro-shocks, heavy confrontations with ourselves. Mostly painful.
“But we need it.”
August is the cruellest is available to stream and purchase at theobservatory.com.sg.