Review Summary: Though these Indonesians would develop their signature avant-garde sound later on, Kekal manages to both deliver a black metal classic and hide clues of what was to come in every corner. An absolute essential...if you can find it.Kekal Discography, Part 1: “More Than Just a Hero”
It is now time for me to embark on an even greater project: reviewing the entire discography of possibly my favorite band, the Indonesian avant-garde masters Kekal. The journey this band’s music has taken me on is life-changing and lies to waste any notion that bands cannot change their core style, move forward and experiment with new ideas and hope to sound better than before – in particular metal bands, and perhaps above all black metal
bands. 1998’s black metal-oriented debut from Kekal defines exactly what the members want at the moment, but also where they want to take their sound in the future, with an incredible display of professionalism and metallic energy that has made Beyond the Glimpse of Dreams
an underground classic to this day (though also because only 5,000 CDs exist).
The most “underground” part of Kekal’s music may still be their lyrical content at this point in their career, mainly focused on Christianity for their first three albums. Just writing about this in this genre is another level of underground status, but Kekal also comes from Indonesia
, a predominantly Muslim country. One must respect the fact that their Christian belief in Indonesia is in opposition to greater society just as the beliefs of true Norwegian BM artists are. How lyrical material has been treated over the course of time is a compelling element of the unfolding story of the band, especially in its later stages where a much different approach is taken. Kekal has never intended to preach, evangelize or proselytize; instead, its members (in this era) wrote profoundly emotional texts about the nature of Christian life and death, and of evils in the world, with appropriate musical backgrounds, razor-tight, concise songwriting and the beginnings of their adventurous attitude.
The musical unity and diversity is a powerful demonstration of the philosophy of “many parts, one body” that makes a great album. From the utterly bludgeoning blast assault and insane screams from original vocalist Harry on Behind Those Images
to the atmospheric, slower metal of Spirits
and the two ballad tracks 8 and 10 with beautiful ambient melodies and all clean vocals, the whole album nevertheless feels of one piece. Musical tricks that repeatedly appear in different forms contribute to the album’s stunning cohesion.
Expected heavy doses of melodic/symphonic black metal tremolo riffs, the brainchild of band leader Jeff Arwadi, are differentiated from each other through different keys and scales; the intricate, original scales of the guitar leads have always been a constant element in Kekal history, and though some leads appear here and there, most of the guitar genius is relegated to the nevertheless stunning riff work. Oppressively dark pieces such as The Conversion
, a tale of escaping the malicious spider web of Satanism, become almost terrifying when high-pitched minor-key riffs are matched with desperate, weakly croaked rhythmic syllables from Harry; the dirty low-end tremolo dirge is appropriate for opening track Rotting Youth
, detailing the slow death of young people’s vitality and innocence and that the way out is to “leave the scenes and follow christ” (yes, the lyrics booklet doesn’t capitalize it this time).
Metal being the dramatic genre that it is, emphasis on the metal
extends the flexibility of the riffage on order and adds a certain heft and groove to Kekal’s music; the groove also would be developed into its signature Kekal form. Track seven Reality
feels almost mosh-pit ready with excellent and audible bass (too bad other tracks obscure it, since bassist Azhar Levi Sianturi is quite talented) and precise marching riffs in time with equally precise drumming, while other tracks such as 1, 2, 3 and 5 have excellent classic metal breakdowns somewhat inspired by the 80’s NWOBHM and thrash scenes, with Iron Maiden
and very early Metallica
The highly dramatic nature of old-school Kekal is supplemented by background synthesizers, though not as prominent as on follow-up Embrace the Dead
; they usually just pop up at the right moments and leave strong impressions on the soundscape. The apocalyptic barnstormer Armageddon
is full of serpentine black metal riffery, but the end of times is not all about destruction; the song drops into a tense symphonic midsection with intelligently used soaring, gothic-like female vocals that warn of the coming judgment. Track nine A Day the Hatred Dies
doubles subtle, melancholy synthesizers over more riffs, with the bass left to hold down what little bottom end the piece has for a very powerful effect, complementing the sad tale of abusive organized religion and how humans can easily erroneously hate hypocrisy. This piece shows the personal note that runs through all of Kekal’s discography; their relationship with conventional religion has never been a happy one, so it is very easy to sympathize with their feelings in this case. Band interviews advance this notion; whether inclined “spiritually, philosophically, or anything else,” Jeff takes the time to ensure that Kekal has simply played “honest” music “coming from [their] hearts” - and this is what matters whatever genre or philosophy the music espouses.
Beyond the Glimpse of Dreams
is a phenomenal success on the whole, with probably the
most original sound going in the Christian black metal scene of the 1990s; only the barest details are reproachable about this release. Harry’s vocal performance and range of styles, from high screams and rasps to lower, more deathly vocals (though not quite growls) and somewhat spoken rasping that sounds somewhat like a croaking frog, is largely beyond criticism and very sensitive to the music (again, something developed even further); the venom in his performance on track four Deceived Minds
as he asks Is there any evidence of Satanic victory?
(especially with imperfect pronunciation) is quite notable. On occasion, he tries some techniques that need a bit more work; the “frog” vocals are executed with proper finesse, but more weight and definition could still be added, as on track 2’s chorus which seems to cry out for a more solid vocal style. The bass is turned down a bit too low, and though still audible clearly in select locations its tone needs more impact to affect the songwriting more. The drum machine utilized until album three is quite well done and generally aims for a more primal style with the occasional technical beat and not too many blast beats; drum machines are impeccably tight and consistent when programmed perfectly, though on a couple tracks the machine is pushed back so far in the mix that it becomes difficult to tell what is going on. Regardless, for an Indonesian black metal debut in 1998, this production is about as good as it gets, with the guitars sounding equally viperine and solidly heavy and most vocals clearly decipherable.
As Kekal moved on from this spectacular debut, they abandoned some of these stylistic experiments and tried others that still fit their sound. Even though this release is most definitely a classic in my book, the only elements I wish Kekal would still do more of are the mellow parts on this release: the ambient synth soundscapes on tracks 8 and 10 are things of beauty. Closer My Eternal Lover
contains not a trace of metal but is somewhat of a worship hymn with female vocals, where darkwave and brief native Indonesian inclusions paint the atmosphere; the reverberating spoken narration of the message of Jesus Christ by second guitarist Leo Setiawan on Escaping Eternal Suffering
is amplified when done in an Asian accent like this. Kekal has embraced this no-boundaries philosophy and crafted it into their own style, and despite the classic material on Beyond the Glimpse of Dreams
, the band would develop an even stronger voice and create masterpieces even surpassing this later on. Stay tuned...