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Published: 2002/09/24
by Chris Gardner

Obscured By Clowns – Rumah Sakit

Sick Room Records 007

Imagine yourself driving in the flatlands deep in the night between towns.
At a given spot on the dial (make it 89.9), you begin to hear pieces of
several songs fighting for precedence, a snippet here, a snippet there,
nothing strong enough to latch onto out here in the middle of nowhere.
You identify four separate songs and await the winner. No one wins.
Suddenly, each song bursts forth with equal clarity and blends into a
seamless whole that is at once all and none of the songs themselves. It is
a cobbled mash of styles, a mix of rhythms that shouldn't work yet somehow
do. At their best, that's Rumah Sakit. This quartet from San Francisco
layers off-kilter rhythms and interwoven melody lines so deftly that I wish
I had never wasted the word "tight" on a funk band.

It is the music of method, the music of ideas. These aspirations usually
do not end well. Either the method overpowers the music, leaving little
more than the scrambled ideas of talented but uninspired music school grads,
or you wind up with the aloof headiness of progressive rock, a headiness
that inexplicably lends itself to concept albums and dense mythologies.
Rest assured that "Obscured By Clowns" is concept-free, and there is nary a
peep of a human voice. The progressive tendencies have been deflated. They
temper them with distinct jazz sensibilities and a visceral intensity, a
smash-you-in-the-face-and-crush-your-skull intensity that lurks in hiding
but maims when unleashed.

Weaving guitar lines are offset in mathematical increments, riding above a
rumbling and unpredictable rhythm section. Any math rock band worth its
salt begins with the sickest of drummers, and Jeff Shannon measures up. His
uncanny precision allows the band to bound wildly from place to place, in
and out of a dizzying array of time signatures. When they hit it right,
Rumah Sakit is four jumbles of lines and segments of lines, four fragmentary
pieces, four haphazard arrangements which, when stacked or superimposed,
cobble together a perfectly coherent whole. Like the album art, the music
is a jumble of seemingly unassociated images that forms a whole that becomes
more complex upon closer inspection.

"No One Likes a Grumpy Cripple" finds the band flexing its muscles. They
can spiral out — loosing the widening gyre until the proverbial center can
no longer hold, and they can dial it right back in to cohesion. The song
pushes, straining its limits. The title track is similar in its complexity. The rhythm section fades, leaving a single, angular guitar line that
is soon joined by its counterpoint. The lines nearly mesh, remaining
maddeningly out of synch. The bass falls in to further clutter the picture. The rhythms blend confusingly. The drums fall in, and the piece comes
sharply into focus. Suddenly, each piece is essential and perfectly placed. It is creepy. It is like watching the construction of a building or
viewing an X-ray. The band lets you see the skeleton. It is cracking open
a giant clock and peeking at the works. It is staring at the guts of a
robot, clinking and grinding with motion.

The more jazz-inflected pieces, like "German Clock," which is aligned around
a tick-tock rhythm, emphasize the strength of the more composed pieces. The
looser efforts have an elasticity. They exist in dream regions as images
that can't quite be put into words. They are equivocal where the others are
focused. "Go Horsey Go" is a mood rather than a statement, an idea that
doesn't quite coalesce. "A Sausage Full of Secrets", on the other hand,
speaks in a dense musical vocabulary that each player seems to implicitly
absorb. The lines are so complex that the result, a near gentle sway,
boggles the mind.

Rumah Sakit's strength lies in the puzzle — the propulsive and mesmerizing
composition. The music bears a striking resemblance to the sadly defunct
Don Caballero, but Rumah Sakit is more apt to stifle the urge to bludgeon
the listener. They will just bat you around a bit, swat you from corner to
corner, play with you like a ball of yarn yanked hither and thither. It's
unnerving, but it is a helluva ride if you settle into it.

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