The Observatory
August is the Cruellest


4.2
excellent

Review

by Irving STAFF
May 2nd, 2016 | 26 replies


Release Date: 2016 | Tracklist

Review Summary: A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.

The Observatory are a rare vintage – the kind of band that seem less concerned with building up a fan base than simply doing whatever the fuck they want. Two years ago the Singaporean avant garde outfit made an explosive return to the fray of contemporary music with the bruising Oscilla, a krautrock-influenced – and relatively accessible – album that was beholden to neither their neo-folk output of the early 2000s or the new wave trappings of 2012’s Catacombs. Their next album was a return to left field – 2015’s Continuum was an experimental and frequently polarizing take on the tenebrous traditions of Indonesian gamelan music. But for their eighth studio effort, the four-piece have chosen to return to Oscilla’s relatively familiar template of tortured guitars and nerve-fraying reverb; in Observatory terms, that’s practically an olive branch.

August is the Cruellest, the world-weary Singaporeans' latest offering, is a restless and cerebral piece (both T.S. Eliot and Chinese poet Yan Jun are name-checked on the album’s inner sleeve). It's also a marked improvement on Oscilla, thanks to the band members’ maturing partnership and a crisper thematic narrative. The evergreen Leslie Low, in his familiar role as the band’s narrative tenor and main lyricist, is a beacon of showmanship – foreboding, stentorian, and elegiac all at once. His abstract style of poetry is given the perfect bed to blossom by drummer Cheryl Ong, guitarist Yuen Chee Wai, and bassist Vivian Wang, now in their second recording cycle as a trio. Album highlight “Wait for the Real Storm” is a case study of the stellar form that the band now find themselves in: across a blistering ten minutes, the track vacillates between the realm of anthropomorphic prog, spectral chanting, and pseudo-grunge. However, the song’s best moments take place at the two-and-a-half-minute mark, when Wang suddenly locks the song into a tightly wound groove and allows both Low and Yuen the freedom to unleash an unbroken six-minute stint of twisting guitar malevolence. “Find a way out!” gasps Low suddenly at the song’s apex, as if the instrumental journey has become too much for even him to bear. Then there are songs like “A Ghost to You” or “Brutal Blues”, the former a tumult of sharp polyrhythms and intense jackhammer drumming, the latter a heartbreakingly beautiful paean that derives much of its strength from Low’s fragile performance, which spends the entire song finely perched on the edge of a blade. “I’m a candle, kill my flame,” he croons calmly towards the tail end of the latter track, seemingly content with his impending euthanasia.

As sonically intriguing as August is the Cruellest can be, its true trump card is its ability to distill Low’s vision of humanity crushed by state apathy into a uniform, digestible whole. Much of this has to do with the consistent central image of the record – that of a dead, smoldering land; a clear reference to the ecological devastation visited upon the Southeast Asian region in the wake of the Indonesian forest fires of 2015. As one might expect, The Observatory aren’t very subtle in decrying the collective negligence of local businesses and regional governments that have repeatedly failed to invest sufficiently in preventative measures. “When the party of ego resigns/Could you wake me up"” spits an exasperated Low on “Wait for the Real Storm”. The parallels to Eliot’s The Waste Land write themselves here. But while the band’s notorious literacy could so easily have been a distraction, The Observatory deserve some credit for being able to bind their literary allusions of choice sufficiently tightly to the auditory fabric of August is the Cruellest, thereby allowing them to simply become cogs within a much greater machine. Take, for instance, the band’s channeling of Yan Jun in “Everything is Vibration”: the famous couplet “Chinese people drink beer/And leave home/Using compasses to point to themselves” finds itself welded to thundering blast beats and a series of abused guitars, rendering both the band’s sonics and the rapidly shifting imagery remarkably accessible despite their unconventional bent.

As such, the best moments of August is the Cruellest – of which there are many – are not only masterclasses of composition and literary currency, but also effective vessels of emotion. "August is the Cruellest", the record’s superb opening track, is an exercise in catharsis; think Swans’ “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett) – if Michael Gira had been a bit more luminous and without the distracting chatter taking place in the background. Ultimately, it’s just another instance in where The Observatory elect to remind us that they are a genuine regional treasure and that, as stubbornly independent as they may be, they still would not reject some form of external validation. "Only asphalt in our hearts," sings Low despondently on "You Have No Heart". He’s not fooling anyone.




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user ratings (21)
Chart.
3.6
great

Comments:Add a Comment 
Irving
Staff Reviewer
May 2nd 2016


7503 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2

I haven't been around these parts as much as I would have liked lately, but I thought I'd share with the Sput one of my current front-runners for "Album of the Year". The fact that it's from a subgenre that I know many Sputnikers will probably dig is a significant added bonus.



Cheers! =)

Voivod
Staff Reviewer
May 2nd 2016


7605 Comments


Hey, the whole album is streaming at Bandcamp:

http://theobservatory.bandcamp.com/album/august-is-the-cruellest


Edit:
Apt review, as per always.

Digging: Fleurety - The White Death

Irving
Staff Reviewer
May 2nd 2016


7503 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2

Yup, along with pretty much the rest of their discography. (Just realized that I definitely should have thought of including their Bandcamp link - thanks Voivod!)

JigglyPDiddy
May 2nd 2016


3225 Comments


Gotta listen to this.

Digging: Fever Ray - Plunge

MarsKid
May 2nd 2016


5606 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Well, this sounds interesting.

tcat84
May 2nd 2016


1142 Comments


Recommend by reviewer:

Mars Volta :-) - Octahedron :-(



Archelirion
Contributing Reviewer
May 2nd 2016


5447 Comments


Well damn, this sounds like it could be brilliant. That album art is so striking.

Winsomniac
May 2nd 2016


8481 Comments


I'd probably chalk it up to personal preference, but for me the vocal performance seems a bit underwhelming to me.

Thankfully, it feels much more focused on the music overall with the vocals being just another element rather than something absolutely central to the whole experience. Cool review, this was interesting to listen to, definitely something I'd revisit when in the mood for this kind of stuff

parksungjoon
May 2nd 2016


5382 Comments


So how post-rock-y is this exactly?

AmericnZero02
May 2nd 2016


3705 Comments


High rating + awesome album artwork = me definitely checking this out

Prognoz
May 2nd 2016


292 Comments


Vocals remind me of Roger Waters at times.

SnakeDelilah
May 2nd 2016


19929 Comments


Similar bands: Porcupine Tree


bye

Digging: Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights

Taxt
May 2nd 2016


1050 Comments


Nice review, this sounds like something that I might dig.

Mythodea
May 2nd 2016


4168 Comments


Tags: Progressive Rock

Similar Bands : Procupine Tree

HELLO!

zaruyache
May 2nd 2016


17914 Comments


The Wasteland is an interesting poem, so I suppose I'm obligated to check this.

RogueNine
May 2nd 2016


3342 Comments


Love the art.

Asdfp277
May 2nd 2016


15808 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

beautiful artwork woah

ShadowRemains
May 3rd 2016


24829 Comments


whoever that girl is second from right in the band photo looks super pretty

Irving
Staff Reviewer
May 3rd 2016


7503 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2

So how post-rock-y is this exactly?



Not very. There are significant sections devoted to mood-building and various instrumental passages, but nothing that I would classify as "post rock" sensu stricto. Art/prog/experimental rock would be a better description, IMHO.

MarsKid
May 3rd 2016


5606 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Not a big fan of the vocals at the moment, but instrumentation isn't bad.



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