1. Stepping In (10:01)
2. Lain Parantina (9:06)
3. Harmologic (3:52)
4. What I Would Say (6:17)
5. For Once and Never (6:29)
6. Common League (3:53)
7. As Far As It Can Be (Jaco) (8:01)
8. 5, 6 (4:38)
9. Ari (6:52)
Riza Arshad – Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano, synth, soundscapes
Tohpati – guitar
Adhitya Pratama - bass
Endang Ramdan – Sundanese kendang percussion (left)
Erlan Suwardana – Sundanese kendang percussion (right)
Cucu Kurnia – assorted metal percussion
Undoubtedly the best-known modern Indonesian outfit in a progressive rock/jazz context, simakDialog have attracted a cult following in the West since the release of their 2007 live album Patahan (their first for Leonardo Pavkovic’s Moonjune Records), followed in 2009 by Demi Masa. Formed in 1993 in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by jazz-trained keyboardist Riza Arshad and guitarist extraordinaire Tohpati Ario Hutomo, the band released three albums – Lukisan, Baur and Trance/Mission – between 1995 and 2002 before Pavkovic took them under his wing and gave them international recognition. After a series of mishaps (including the cancellation of NEARfest 2011, where they were scheduled to appear), their long-awaited US tour – which coincided with the release of their fifth studio album, The 6th Story – finally materialized in the late summer of 2013, kicking off with a headlining performance at ProgDay that was unfortunately interrupted by heavy rain, and wrapped up by a very well-attended show at the Orion Studios, introduced by French avant-garde trio Jean-Louis.
As used and abused as the “East meets West” definition can be, there is no better way to describe simakDialog’s music to the uninitiated. Alongside electric guitar, bass and that iconic cornerstone of jazz-rock, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the six-piece configuration of the band features a trio of percussionists in the style of the traditional gamelan ensembles – Erdang Ramdan and Erlan Suwardana playing the Sundanese two-headed kendang drums, and Cucu Kurnia (the band’s most recent addition) handling metal percussion. The result is a uniquely warm sound with a remarkably natural flow, capable of flashes of angularity and even brief forays into noise, yet never overwrought. In addition, though each of simakDialog’s members is a virtuoso of his own instrument, the band emphasize ensemble playing at its finest rather than technical flash, with individual skills put at the service of the composition rather than the other way round.
SimakDialog’s music, on the other hand, may not prove to be the easiest proposition for those who are used to the in-your-face antics of many traditional prog bands. Subtlety is the operative word on The 6th Story, and that in itself requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener. Their leisurely, unhurried approach to live performance has also more in common with Eastern than Western tradition, focusing on the sheer joy of playing and the creation of subtle moods rather than the head-on adrenaline rush of the standard rock concert.
Clocking in at a handful of seconds under an hour, The 6th Story (the band’s first entirely instrumental album in over 10 years) opens with “Stepping In”, the album’s longest track, which aptly illustrates simakDialog’s modus operandi. While the sinuous interplay of Tohpati’s guitar and Riza Arshad’s scintillating Fender Rhodes immediately leaps out from the speakers, it is the joyful mayhem of the three percussionists that impresses in the long run, bolstered by Adithya Pratama’s impeccable bass emerging every now and then in the foreground. The track unfolds with supreme elegance, spiced up by sound effects that turn slightly chaotic towards the end. The 9-minute “Lain Parantina” also conveys a sunny, bright feel with its oddly catchy main theme and skillfully handled tempo changes, gaining momentum then slowing down to an almost sparse texture, held together by the steady stream of percussion. Tohpati’s guitar is spotlighted in the much shorter “Harmologic”, while the piano takes an almost supporting role, working almost as an additional percussion instrument. In the second shortest track on the album, “Common League”, soundscapes add an intriguing note to the lively yet fluid sparring of piano and guitar.
SimakDialog’s more energetic side surfaces in “5,6”, where Tohpati displays his rock credentials (amply demonstrated in his power trio Tohpati Bertiga’s 2012 debut, Riot) with a distorted guitar solo; while the upbeat “For Once and Never” revolves around the expressive, almost conversational interplay of the two main instruments, supported by Pratama’s versatile bass. The discreet, laid-back “What Should I Say” pleases the ear with its smooth sounds, and “As Far As It Can Be (Jaco)” – a tribute to the ground-breaking bassist written by Arshad together with fellow Indonesian musician Robert M.K. – takes on a suitably elegiac tone, full of lovely, stately melody. “Ari” then closes the album by giving synth a leading role alongside the piano, with the ever-reliable percussion background seconding the music’s ebb and flow.
For the audiophile, headphones will be a must in order to savour The 6th Story in full, as letting it run in the background will definitely not do any favours to the music’s understated elegance. Although the album may resonate more with jazz fans than the average prog audience, it is highly recommended to all open-minded listeners, especially those who enjoy the influence of different ethnic traditions on established Western modes of expression. All in all, The 6th Story is an extremely classy effort (and one of the standout releases of 2013) from a group of very nice, unassuming and talented musicians, whom I hope to see again in the US very soon.