Those of us already familiar with OOIOO - the experimental, experiential troupe led by Boredoms’ Yoshimi - will probably head into the group’s latest with an expectation of the unfamiliar. For the uninitiated there will be little more sonically alien than gamelan, the ancient, otherwordly, Javanese percussion that’s at the core of OOIOO’s Gamel, five years on from 2009’s Armonico Hewa and four years in the making.
A steadily intensifying chanting eases the album in on “Don Ah”, becoming more pronounced until it’s joined by chiming gamelan bells which more or less punctuate the following hour. A single, sparse drum beats intermittently before a striking guitar brings the listener back, setting the tone for a refreshing combination of earthy, psychedelic noise and something altogether more celestial.
Ancient-sounding metallophones strongly contrast the crisp, modern production, combining an ambiance that could be thousands of years old with screeching, acid-drenched grooves. Each song seeps seamlessly into the next, dipping in and out of meditative space before reascending into crazed, frenetic energy. In “Jesso Testa”, hurried metallic strikes are accompanied by quick, breathless chanting. Jagged guitars and a wildly creeping synth evoke a sense of crowded, enthusiastic chaos spilling out from a small, private ceremony. The mishmash of styles creates something that feels light enough to float away but is chained to earth by lengthy, harmonic tones that crawl under the compositions and provide an unshifting anchor. Songs like “Gamel Kamasu”, meanwhile, introduce a film-noir trumpeting that, more forcefully than anything else here, clashes contemporary cultures with the traditional, while the out-there freak-funk of “Kecupat Aneh” manage to paste in yet another layer of surprise on a record where surprise can be counted on as a hallmark feature.
On occasion the distorted but slightly muted guitars do interfere with the overall pacing. Labored, simplistic riffs can be, whether intentionally or not, slightly jarring and detract from the overall moods, but luckily these niggling moments are few and far between.
This is not passive, background music. But OOIOO is not a passive, background band: they have always been thoroughly improvisational and it’s clearer than ever here. Whether leaning towards an ergot-fueled ritualistic mania, slices of precise post-punk psych, or relaxing briefly into a tranquil but sombre pulsing, Yoshimi and OOIOO do well to capture the urgency of a memorable live experience.
Gamel demands attention: the pervasive Javanese backdrop creates cohesiveness, but the album nevertheless sweeps up the listener in stormy whirlwinds, sometimes of feverish jazz, at other moments more akin to brooding krautrock or noisy bursts of disarming, screaming energy. In almost every case some breathing space provides enough room for contemplation before it again launches in different, deliberate directions. At its best, the album is all at once loud, ethereal, and haunting - as if being violently jolted awake from a lucid dream you can’t quite remember.