Open the Crown is the latest album by Arrinton de Dionyso’s post Old Time Relijun band, Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa. The album, like the artist, is a polarizing vehicle that stirs immediate debate. Founded in the mid 90s, Old Time Relijun pushed the boundaries of traditional indie fare with influences ranging from Captain Beefheart, to blues, free jazz, experimental noise and Tuvan throat singing-or at least an approximation of said technique. Having run its course by the mid 00s, Dionyso forged ahead with a new project, Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa. Where Malaikat dan Singa differs from Old Time Relijun is Malaikat dan Singa is more wholly a solo project for Dionyso. Old Time Relijun was, although on the surface all about Dionyso, a collaborative group, where Malikat dan Singa is a more singluar, distilled vision for Dionyso.
Despite the shift in control, Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa remains every bit as polarizing as Old Time Relijun. Michael Sandin once declared one Old Time Relijun album as, “The first time anyone’s ever recorded an ensemble of diarrhea-afflicted Down’s Syndrome chimpanzees taking a collective dump in someone’s garage;” giving the band a 0.3 for their 1999 effort Uterus and Fire. The band’s 2001 effort, Witchcraft Rebellion, brought in a 8.0 on the sites infamous, quantitative grading scale. Quantifying artistic output aside, such disparate opinions on Dionyso’s work has defined his career; Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa is no different.
There are numerous hurdles to jump in order to provide even the resemblance of a balanced review when it comes to Open the Crown. From issues surrounding culture, appropriation, expression, art, artifice and authenticity, Dionyso is the type of artist that forces the listener to address a number of internal and external paradoxes before you are even able to make a judgment on the album. To criticize an album like Open the Crown, you are making both a value and aesthetic judgment, both of which inform each other.
There is a popular notion that we live in a “post-racist” society. The very idea of which undercuts the legitimate struggle and hurdles that face minority groups not only in our society, but in communities throughout the world. Conversely and issue of privilege allows for such unaffected commentary on the politics of race and class. The same issues of privilege, race and class are heightened when you add to the mix the realities of first world issues versus second, or even third, world realities. Such a discussion on privilege and class must take place when even taking the slightest critical aim at the music and art of Arrington de Dionyso.
The same critical issues that repeatedly pop up in commentary on the work of Vampire Weekend and tUnE-yArDs exist in Dionyso’s work. After all he is a Caucasian-American male with the economic and social status to have afforded him extended trips to far-oft places like Jakarta to focus in and hone his artistic approach and aesthetic. What may separate Dionyso from greater claims of cultural appropriation is the simple fact that Dionyso actually used his time in Indonesia to collaborate with local musicians on both his own project, as well as projects launched by a number of Indonesian collaborators; creating a cross-cultural collaboration of sorts. There is at times however a creeping feeling that the authenticity of the product is something totally in the realm of cultural tourism. Dionyso leaps from Jamaican dancehall, to Tuvan throat singing, to Indonesian trance with only Dionyso’s unified sonic aesthetic binding the disparate elements together. The result is at once something unique to Arrington de Dionyso’s almost 20 year career, as well as firmly rooted in the Don Van Vliet school of music.
What Dionyso does is in a sense create music of spectacle in a Debordian sense. Through his interpretations of traditional music Dionyso has replaced the authentic with representation, or, “the decline of being into having, and having into mere appearing.” But with Malaikat dan Singa, the spectacle is not a collection of sounds, rather a social relationship between people that is mediated by song. It essential in looking at Dionyso’s work that you think of this idea of musical spectacle in a sense of style, Malaikat dan Singa is primarily an expression of style over form.
The unifying idea behind Open the Crown is a set of aesthetic queues plucked from traditional forms of music and transferred to Dionyso’s tribal, rhythmic recording. Style as the main form of expression is risky when it comes to music, you have to be certain that by style alone you are expressing what other formal elements normally would speak to, or as critic/scholar Meyer Schapiro writes, “Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible.” For the purposes of Open the Crown style hinges on the interplay of pounding, rhythmic drums, repetitive drumming, dissonant guitar work, free jazz saxophone expressions and a varied vocal approach. The culmination of these elements create a work that is both singular to its own aesthetic, yet owning heavily to the ground work that other artists have paved in creating many of the tropes employed by Dionyso.
Vocally Dionyso treads so close to LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy that it is startlingly surprising that fewer people have pointed to the similarity. No song exemplifies this more directly than the opener, “I Feel the Quickening”, the tracks pulsing rhythm is so in step with LCD Soundsystem’s early output (think “Yeah!”) that it could almost be a lost outtake. Perhaps this is Open the Crown’s greatest trapping; despite a wildly varied approach to each song vocally, it is not difficult to pinpoint the apparent influences whether it dancehall reggae, Captain Beefheart, Tuvan throat singing, or beyond. Open the Crown is less an album that mixes different elements, and more an album that places them next to each other. There is less fluidity in approach than the albums yearns to display.
Despite a lack of fluidity in vocal approach, for the first two thirds of the album, Open the Crown is an extremely nimble and fluid album. Rarely does Open the Crown hop outside of the same bouncing pulse. If the intent of the album is to have a unifying pulse, than the album succeeds wildly. However with a song like “The Akedah” breaking the trance, you are left wondering if the lack of variety is less intentional, and more of a matter of a working formula for creation. After said break, the last third of the album follows very little of the internal logic that the first two thirds of the album holds. The near slap-dash approach to the final third of the album does a great disservice to overall thrust that Dionyso and co. held for the majority of the album.
It should be noted that the production of the album is great. The drums and bass rumble, the guitar sits in the right pocket, the saxophone doesn’t overbear and the vocals float in all the right places. Production of this sort takes a lot of intent and forethought, and despite the album’s yearning desire to sound off the cuff there is an underlying level of cold calculation that drives the album.
Open the Crown for all its highs and lows, faults and remarkable points is a confused construct that demands attention. It is not a passive album, nor is the band behind it a band who performs a type of music that is well suited for a passive listener. Like much of Dionyso’s career, the album is aimed at an audience so narrow in definition that it cannot help but being a polarizing force in the music world.
This review originally appeared on ssgmusic.com on March 21, 2013.