The Jakarta band Rekah create swirling blasts of noise that mix the melancholic dramatics reminiscent of modern black metal and the quiet-loud dynamics of third-wave emo-core bands. Threaded throughout are heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics steeped in psychological turmoil, all delivered with the kind of intense wail that sounds on the verge of actual tears.
You can call Rekah emotional, but don’t call them emo.
Vocalist-guitarist and bandleader Tomo Hartono will admit still heavily rotating “’90s emo” as well as contemporary “revival” bands, but he shudders at the idea of labeling his band emo – or any other genre.
“We don’t really think about what box our music fits into when we’re writing them – at all,” he says.
Instead, Rekah think about the mood and the message. On their newly released debut album ‘Kiamat’ (‘Doomsday’), the band continue to embrace every emotion, building on their previous EPs – 2017’s ‘Berbagi Kamar’ (‘Sharing Rooms’) and 2021’s ‘Kiamat, Babak Pertama’ (‘Doomsday, First Phase’) – which were ultra-personal dissections of the band members’ psychological issues.
“I write these songs to exorcise the demons that are renting a room in my head,” Tomo says of his creative process. “I give them names, stories, and a voice. I let them ‘speak’ with each other through my songs.”
But ‘Kiamat’ also aims to be a more inclusive dive into society’s psyche as a whole, acknowledging how challenging the last few years have been for everyone.
“‘Berbagi Kamar’ was a very personal release for me, but it wasn’t sharp about its politics. It was all about the ‘interiors’ of my life,” says Tomo, who writes all the band’s music and lyrics. “‘Kiamat’ is something of a self-criticism about that point-of-view.”
“I write these songs to exorcise the demons that are renting a room in my head”
The album, he says, is about the awareness that mental health issues intersect with social ones such as gender, capitalism, labour, inequality, and ‘invasions’ the powerful enact on the weak.
Rekah are rounded up by guitarist and backing vocalist Fachri Bayu Wicaksono, drummer Junior Johan and bass player Yohan Christian. They all met at underground gigs around Jakarta and as Rekah made a name for themselves through their intense live shows. Tomo, in his early 30s and the oldest member of the band, moved from backing vocals to lead vocals after their previous singer Tepy moved to Bandung for his studies.
The members of Rekah hold day jobs that have informed their stance towards mental health. Without getting too specific, they will reveal that they’re employed in the fields of graphic design, tech and finance – and that most of them share frustration of having to work in industries devoid of creativity and individuality.
The members of Rekah aren’t the only ones struggling through the grind. “There is this tendency for people to think that mental health issues are an individual issue, but it isn’t that simple,” Tomo says. Mental health problems are “a systemic issue, as long as inequality exists everywhere”. Certain that he wasn’t the only one “gasping for breath 24/7” trying to survive his daily existence, Tomo wrote the album as an attempt to connect his personal angst with society’s collective anxiety.
‘Kiamat’ is divided into three chapters: the first about “the banal things we do to survive”, the second about “the hell of capitalism”, and the last about doomsday and the hereafter.
“This is a world that is filled with unfairness and it needs to experience doomsday first, before we can once again open the road and breathe easier,” he says.
‘Kiamat’ might be about doomsday, but Tomo is no prophet. No matter how emotional his lyrics, he’s not trying to become a preaching “saviour” – rather, he’s trying to forge a larger human connection through shared struggles and experiences.
“I’m not the only person who has to sell their body and energy to survive,” he says. “I’m not the only one who has had to bury my dreams in order to put food on the table. And I’m not the only one who is angry and worried about how things are going.”
“I’m not the only one who has had to bury my dreams in order to put food on the table”
Tomo says that he wrote ‘Kiamat’ by thinking of it as a movie, focusing on the narratives in his songs and making sure they delivered a point.
This approach is clearly heard on ‘Kereta Terakhir Dari Palmerah’ – ‘Last train from Palmerah’, a hectic, lower- and working-class area in Jakarta. An ode to office workers whose lives are swallowed by corporate schedules and survival needs, it references (in Indonesian) “empty wallets” and “choking on debt“. It ends with a lurch to escapism: “There is no heaven at the top of the tower / Take me far away”.
On ‘Kabar Dari Dasar Botol’ (‘News From the Bottom of the Bottle’), Rekah tackle immense sadness and impending alcoholism even as they take melodic cues from Indonesia’s 90s alternative pop. They are less straightforward on ‘24 Jam Di Fatmawati’ (‘24 Hours in Fatmawati’, a perpetually busy area in south Jakarta filled with skyscrapers and offices), which starts with twinkling post-rock guitars and spoken-word vocals before weaving into a screamo-esque middle section and a light-jazz breakdown.
Rekah allow new wave, jazz, post-punk and prog rock to creep into their sound on ‘Kiamat’. “It’s erratic and jumps all over the place,” Tomo acknowledges. “It’s fun, though.”
He cites Omar Rodríguez-López, the prolific guitarist and composer who branched out beyond his emo roots with projects like At The Drive In and The Mars Volta, with teaching him “how to combine a lot of different elements in the music I write but keep it all unified”.
And he sings the praises of Filipino metallic post-hardcore band Beast Jesus. “I’ve always just wanted to combine shoegaze, dream pop, and ’90s screamo, but couldn’t figure out how,” Tomo explains. “It was from listening to Beast Jesus intensely that I figured out how to do that.”
‘Kiamat’ is, for now, only available in digital format through The Storefront, an Indonesia-based platform which has been the go-to place for many local musicians trying to sell their music (and merchandise) at a fair price subject to reasonable cuts. What Rekah made in a month by selling their previous EPs through The Storefront, they say, was more than what they made through streaming in a year.
“Making an album takes up a lot of time and energy… It’s just painful to not make anything reasonable from selling our music”
“Making an album takes up a lot of time and energy. A band who are friends of ours even said they will never make an album until the day they are about to break up,” Tomo says. “It’s just painful to not make anything reasonable from selling our music.”
The independent record label Greedy Dust will eventually release a physical version of the album in cassette format sometime in July. Rekah also plan to put out a zine filled with writing that delves into the album’s themes, and are also considering having their songs transcribed into sheet music.
But for now, Rekah will do what they’ve always done: rely on word of mouth and their explosive and, yes, emotional live shows to attract new listeners.
“We don’t have any promotional plans because we don’t really have the money to do any promotion,” Tomo shrugs. “Our only ‘promotional’ tool is our social media, and even that is filled with silly posts. Our brand is ‘no branding’.”
He pauses and concludes, “The best way to experience and get to know us, is to come to our shows, get close to the stage, and sing and shout yourself hoarse with us all through the night.”
Rekah’s ‘Kiamat’ is out now, with a cassette edition to come soon
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