Gamelan echoes the body. The beat moves like blood moves; the undulation caused by playing two instruments tuned slightly apart from each other cycles like breath. The traditional Indonesian folk music made an uncanny fit for Akira, a cyberpunk action story shaped by concepts of divinity and post-humanism. The 1988 anime film, whose score samples gamelan, renders in grisly, fantastical detail the theoretical potential of the human body. If nuclear radiation degrades DNA, couldn’t it also enhance it? On their newest album, OOIOO also use gamelan instruments to probe the limits of body music in the age of cyborgs.
In a sense, noise music has always been body music, just as all films in the horror genre work upon the body. Noise is about limits, about how loud or how long you can go. Japan’s Boredoms make the sort of towering body music that obliterates the structures that usually constrain rock. OOIOO, a longstanding project fronted by Boredoms’ drummer Yoshimi, similarly permeates the membranes that surround “rock” as it’s known in the West. Seemingly by osmosis, gamelan filtered into the band’s live show and then their new album, plainly titled Gamel.
Gamel makes for lighter fare than OOIOO and Boredoms in their default state of bulked-up guitar music. Gongs and metallophones occupy space where distortion might have swelled; OOIOO still play guitar here, but the strings defer to the mallets. Unlike traditional gamelan musicians, OOIOO don’t attempt steady rhythms with their new Indonesian tools. Gamel doesn’t invite you into a trance, doesn’t calm, doesn’t transcend. If the album is a body it’s a jittery, nervous, broken one, full of irregular rhythms. Listening to Gamel is like hearing a body undergo a prolonged stress reaction.
OOIOO demand a different kind of attention than either gamelan or Western rock. Layered voices call out staccato syllables on “Gamel Ninna Yama”, acting out a tense call and response. “Gamel Kamasu” launches Yoshimi into a screaming fit that’s buoyed, not soothed, by the chimes around her. On the record’s highlight “Jesso Testa”, harmonized guitars flit in and out of syncopated percussion as the band’s chanting builds. The strain that festers throughout the record pulls taught and lurches forward, like the moment of adrenaline fueling action. It is challenging to listen to. It’s also triumphant.
This is not an album you can ingest piecewise; OOIOO have constructed another fluid whole that insists upon its hourlong singularity. The band’s hybridization of noise rock and Javanese folk music results in a strange new vernacular that at times feels too abstract to grip, but Yoshimi hasn’t made a name for herself through her music’s accessibility. Gamel works as dense fodder for athletic listeners, and maybe as a revelation for those who haven’t yet found the right musical language to validate their 21st century nervousness.