Tok Yathraa’s Malaysian Metal Menageries
Actual. Cannibal. Manananggal.
Given the undeniable spirit of isolation that has pervaded this entire year, it’s also been a good time for solo metal projects, especially the kind of rowdy speed metal made by delinquents who seem to live in an abandoned Spirit Halloween. I’m talking Hellripper and Midnight, mainly, who both have had fine fire-and-brimstone outings this year, easily fulfilling my normal appetite for diabolical B-movie ragers, but it’s getting to that very special time of year again, and my thirst grows dire. Needless to say, this Halloween is going to be a muted affair. All of us party people are now hunting for a haunting that can be enjoyed solo, in our garishly decorated shame-holes that once passed as apartments. Even the almighty King Diamond, my lord and master (and distant namesake), has chosen to put off releasing his next record until it can be celebrated among throngs of masqueraders as Goat intended. So, out of necessity, I must turn to a new scion of the spooky to provide fresh blood: Tok Yathraa, a filthy one-man trad metal outfit from Singapore.
Since first manifesting in May, Tok Yathraa has put out a respectable 2 EPs, a 50-minute long-player, and a smattering of singles and split tracks, all individually focused on a different mythological boogeyman from around the South China Sea. The Indonesian Pocong, the Malaysian Orang Bunian, and the Filipino Manananggal all form “Chapters” in Tok Yathraa’s ongoing cycle of ghost stories, putting his thematic approach somewhere between the penny dreadful concept albums of the King and serial killer catalog bands like Macabre and Church of Misery. If parents use it to scare their kids into going to bed on time, it presumably has a place carved out in Tok Yathraa’s grand exhibition.
The rate of musical output here is pretty impressive and isn’t slowing down, (he put out a new single on Youtube while I was writing this), but thankfully, unlike so many other pretenders to the Petersen/Larocque throne, Tok Yathraa’s tunes are top-shelf, to boot. This haunted house is built on a sturdy foundation of foul black’n’roll, and furnished throughout with ghastly leads, screeching and hoary and ragged. The lyrics are fully dedicated to their chosen topic, which would be a problem in a band that had any fear of appearing one-note, a fear that Tok Yathraa laughs maniacally at. “Manananggal” is such a great word to scream in your best Abbath-croak that you don’t even mind that it comprises basically every chorus for 30 minutes.
I won’t say these songs are virtuosic, in fact none of these records are, and that’s because you’re not really here just for the riffs. They’re meaty and muscley, but the real draw is that they’re in service to a character, a dastardly storyteller who would probably fit right in hosting a variety horror radio show. Every sneering, gnarly lick is supporting the sneering, gnarly delivery of the man himself. Yathraa doesn’t boast the most impressive range, but his commitment to overacting more than makes up for it, and it’s helped by the odd, scratchy modulation on his vocals that make it sound like they’re coming from an all night public-access marathon of imported Southeast Asian splatter movies.
In fact, all of Tok Yathraa’s little atmospheric touches would be hokey on their own, but run all at once and back to back, they set such a captivating scene you almost want to reach for the popcorn. Chapter: Pocong is laden with folksy, tribal interludes that sometimes feel like forgotten Dengue Fever demos, and the fully folk “Kau Pembunuh” is a somber, mellow, emotional cry for the wrongs of the dead to be righted by the living, a genuine ghostly eulogy that hits perfectly on the soul of good horror. But it has no problem throwing the Dracula cape right back on for the stomach-twisting riffs of “You Didn’t Bury Me Properly”.
Chapter: Manananggal ups the ante by running a proper narrative through the EP, complete with bogus vampire-hunter audio diaries, a hunting party, a plea for mercy from “The One Who Separates”, and such a soft, bouncy passage to exit the album I’d swear it was meant to be credits music for the theater staff who need to clean up all the puke and spilled sugar water. The only Tok Yathraa track that breaks character is “Jeritan Batinku”, a tribute single dedicated to Malaysian cinema icon P. Ramlee. To my knowledge (and some illuminating web searches), he never had much of a horror presence, but the tune is a groovy, swaying piece anyway.
So throw on a black bedsheet, curl your fingers like a deformed talon clutching an invisible orange, and stalk around the shadowy crypt that is your impromptu home office. This might be the last moment of pretend you get before the real, post-election horror starts. Afford yourself a moment to be your truest (trvest?), deepest, most gimmicky incarnation. And remember that even if you’re doing it all alone, somebody somewhere is chewing the scenery in unity with you, maybe even on the other side of the planet. It could be Tok Yathraa. In all likelihood, it could even be me. Just hanging out here, in A Spooky Mansion.