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 fu
ck 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.