Along the tar-sticky road of a metal band’s career, many of the most durable acts prize fidelity to their original sound over all else. But Karina Utomo says that even with the recent additions of Lauren Hammel (drums) and Mike Deslandes (guitarist and songwriter), she always knew High Tension’s path would morph towards something more vicious.
“In my mind and I think from the start of High Tension as a project, I’ve always wanted it to be in that realm of the more extreme end of the spectrum – to be really heavy, to be a brutal band,” she says. “[With new album Purge] we definitely explored a lot of avenues, a lot of experimentation. I love how collaborative we are… I won’t lie, [Mike] put in most of the work, so it was good to have a totally different personality in the band when it came to one of the main songwriters. I feel like writing this type of music and wanting to honour the things that we wrote… has been really good for our physical health as well.”
She means that literally, and deliberately: Utomo and Hammel started training in a kind of pact-partnership, to improve their performance. “I think for Hammel it was strengthening some of her arm muscles and improving her posture,” says Utomo. “For me, it was to have that stamina, but mainly core strength. ‘Cos when we were rehearsing the new songs especially – where it’s just screams, basically, the whole song – I was starting to feel a bit of a stitch, and I wanted to feel strong.”
Amongst the blitzing riffs and thumping drums of Purge is Surrender, in which Utomo’s delicate, melodic head voice is intimately revealed. “I think the beauty of singing in the ‘brutal’ method is that most of the time you don’t know what the lyrics are – it’s less confronting for me, I guess having that guise allows me to say the things that I really mean, but it’s almost less direct. [Surrender] did feel like it was more revealing; I am conscious because that’s not my usual vocal style, so it’s always challenging. I do definitely have a soft spot for that song; it felt good to experiment.”
Utomo describes Deslandes’ role as “crucial” – he not only wrote songs, but also produced and engineered the album: “He comes from a background of being in bands all his life – music is his whole life. He’s recorded all of the best bands in Melbourne! His work really is prolific. But a lot of [the time] I see him really labour over the sound and the pedals, and when you ask him a question… half the time I don’t know what he’s talking about but he’ll totally humour me, and tell me the workings of a particular pedal and how that affects the tone, or different combinations. He’s very patient.”
Meanwhile, the album’s subject matter centres around the horrific anti-Communist killings in Utomo’s home country of Indonesia, in 1965 – which, although not studied nearly as widely, ranks alongside the ‘30s Soviet, ‘40s Nazi and ‘50s Maoist purges as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. “[Music is] a really important outlet for me to be able to express these feelings and tell these stories, because there’s still present-day implications for the victims of the anti-Communist purge,” Jakarta-born Utomo says carefully. “I’ve done self-directed research and I’m starting, on a very small scale, a little bit of an oral history project to make sure some of these stories are documented. So I think my approach comes from a more personal and reflective perspective of why it’s important to be able to speak openly about traumatic things, and about how harmful it is to silence people, and hide things, or be in denial.”
Purge is out June 15 via Double Cross/Cooking Vinyl.
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