Kekal is a criminally underappreciated band. Yes, as an experimentally inclined Black Metal band from Indonesia, there is a certain natural limit to their fame, but at their height, Kekal were creating something so strange and unique, and executing it so well, they should have become a household name.
Kekal’s 2005 album Acidity finds the band blending aggressive Heavy Metal with digressions and influences from a host of other genres. There are bits and traces of Reggae, Electronica, Tropicalia, Classical and many more within Acidity’s songs. However, Kekal’s musical swerves are not as sudden and complete as Japanese Black Metal band Sigh’s – Kekal tend not to launch completely and hilariously into incongruous parts. These are metal songs at their heart.
But metal is such a generic descriptor nowadays. What do Kekal sound like? What sets them apart? The base sound of Acidity is large. The songs sound like they are issuing forth in some humongous, dark echo chamber. There is an aura of nighttime to the songs – but they seem to lack setting almost completely. There is little sense of city, countryside, woods, desert, ocean or outer space. These are songs of vacuum, strange inventions of the void.
The drums are “hybrid”, which is to say partially programmed. They often sound stiff and clipped, but gaining the advantage of being amenable to near impossible patterns and standards of precision. The Drums are indeed intricate, sneaking maximalist fills into moments of transition and growing complex and syncopated during stretches of simpler guitar melody.
The guitars carry the weight. They are large and full. Despite Kekal’s Black Metal origins, there is not much blastbeat-n-tremolo action here. It is more striking for its scarcity – hear it dispatched with aplomb in “Thy Neighbor’s Morality”. Much of Acidity’s guitar work is harder to pin down – chords, chugging, solos, sounding retro, corny, wistful, melodramatic. Chords progress in unexpected ways. Sudden shifts in genre and guitar tone disorient and delight. There is a lot of 80’s arena metal influence here. There’s also just a lot going on here.
Lead singer Jeff Arwadi’s vocals bring home the emotional bacon. His black metal screech is demonic and threatening, yet his singing is plaintive, bordering on histrionic. There’s something modern and quintessentially Asian at work here, a lack of macho posturing that allows Arwadi to really bare his soul. This is great on songs like “Empty Space” and “Strength in my Weakness”, songs with heft and impact, counterpoints to the vulnerability of the vocals. However, all the heartfelt wailing grows a little tiresome at times, like in the synth and power chord ballad “Broken”.
The trouble with Kekal is that you never really know what they are going to do next, and whether it will work or not. Their songs are generally fairly long, and many times a song will start out great, but will be hopelessly mangled by some strange musical experiment – or several – before it is halfway through. Centerpiece “The Way of Thinking Beyond Comprehension” is a casualty of this tendency, transitioning from a brilliantly varied, pummeling and uplifting early section that whips around almost like jazz-inflected Mathcore, to a long and pointless middle stretch of chanting, goofy asides and interminable, context-poor guitar solos. You’ll forget what the good part sounded like. The opposite is true of “Broken” which wallows in nearly three and a half minutes of caterwauling before breaking loose into a suite of manic guitar solos that is too little, too late.
But when Kekal’s experiments work, boy do they ever. “Characteristicon” is a sublimely satisfying metal thrill ride, flying through big overtures, dramatic arena metal riffs, bizarre middle-eastern motifs, fleet-fingered guitar solos, drum exhibitions, reggae breakdowns, philosophical lyrics and an 80’s style shouted refrain that generates unusual emotional power.
“Thy Neighbor’s Morality” is another achievement. Here Kekal conjure up black metal storms worthy of Emperor, but surround them with unconventional support structures. Electronica gives way to BM, gives way to Hair Metal melodicism, gives way to youthful shouts. The result is a novel rave-up with strange coexisting elements of power and menace, melody and poignancy. Indeed Kekal pluck not just simple melodies and emotions from the genres they sweep across the canvas, but whole contexts, scenes, whole ways of thinking and feeling.
By the time album closer “Empty Space” hits its heartbreaking stride you may be ready to forgive Kekal some of their musical trespasses. Black Metal has become, strangely, a fertile ground for stylistic exploration, for a breaking of boundaries and unapologetic musical experimentation. Kekal are a mostly forgotten and ignored part of that push, of the opening up and enriching of black metal. Kekal used Acidity and their other albums in much the same way that progressive rock artists of the 70’s used their work to open up rock’s framework for new attachments and improvements. There is no cynical “blowing up” of the genre here, Kekal operate on metal in the spirit of possibility and hope.
And it’s a crying shame that Kekal continue to exist in such a deep cardinality of obscurity. The band’s history is somewhat confounding and sad. Kekal should be touring the world with Meshuggah and Dimmu Borgir. Instead they seem to exist in the same dark and expansive nowhere that Acidity takes place in, a dim borderless void assembled piecemeal from dark corners of the internet and unlit eaves of dingy music venues. This is an unfair fate for the band who made “1000 Thoughts of Violence” and “Acidity” back to back. It may be too late for Kekal to gain the recognition they deserve, but it’s not too late for extreme music seekers to appreciate the work they have done, and give it renewed life.