As their name suggests, Melbourne’s High Tension bring a sense of angst, tension and pent-up rage unlike many in our country’s diverse and broad heavy music spectrum. Since the turn of the decade, High Tension – led by ferocious frontwoman Karina Utomo – have fused elements of hardcore punk and black metal, along with hints of crust and death metal, all marked by bloodcurdling shrieks and thrashy yet beautifully simplistic and catchy riffs.
Beneath all of the anger and brutality, however, lies confronting and vulnerable lyricism. Something that is more present than ever before on their forthcoming third LP, ‘Purge’, the long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s critically acclaimed record, ‘Bully’.
By far the band’s most personal record yet, a majority of the lyricism on ‘Purge‘ reflects upon the persecution of Communists and ethnic Chinese peoples in Indonesia (Karina’s homeland) between 1965-1966; a period that’s often referred to as the Indonesian Genocide or the 2965 Tragedy. A horrible era that resulted in widespread death, famine and cultural wounding, in addition to much of it being omitted from many Indonesian history books by the regime at the times; issues of which are still felt to this day. This existed at the very heart of this new record’s first single, the savage ‘Ghost To Ghost‘, which we covered in-depth back in March.
“Sometimes to get an understanding of something is to fully go as deep as you can”, states Karina when I called her up to talk about the concept that revolves around ‘Purge‘.
“For me, it was a point in history that I wanted to know about and have spent the past 10 years trying to understand what happened in that era. It’s affected so much around me and so much of my growing up – it’s so intrinsic to the present.”
Experiencing the aftermath and long-term tensions of such nationals horror is blessedly absent for many of us, but Karina was quick to point out that, regardless of time’s passing, we should never become complacent.
“One thing I get concerned with is the fact that the things I’ve sung about, they haven’t stopped happening in the world now. Really brutal stuff happens every day, and you can sometimes feel at a loss. I was reflecting on inter-generational trauma and how that relates to other events in history. This feels so real and relevant to me, and it works. This feels like the best way to make the record because I can’t execute these songs if that rage wasn’t real and if the grief wasn’t real.”
Such rage and grief are shockingly present from the opening moments of ‘Purge’, what with songs like ‘Red & White Shame’ and ‘Ula’ both providing utterly raw and real feelings of trauma.
“I grew up in Indonesia, went to school, had a very normal childhood, and it wasn’t until I was 23 that I found out what really happened in the 60’s with the anti-communist purge”, reflects Karina.
“It shocked me because all these things I thought I had known where false. It wasn’t just like when you watch a good doco that’s informative; it went way deeper and I felt a little bit sick. It was something that I couldn’t stop thinking about, so I actively tried to do as much research as I could. And I found that writing songs were a really good way to address this thing that was really confronting.”
Going deeper, Karina reveals how her own experiences with violence and political tension in her home country eerily resembled similar sentiments to the nation’s purge during the 1960’s.
“When I went back to Indonesia in 1998 – it’s [now] just past the 20th anniversary of the Jakarta riots – I was in school when they [the riots] occurred. I didn’t go to school for six months. It was verging on the end of the Suharto era [military commander turned authoritarian President who ruled from 1967-1998] and it was the height of the international monetary crisis. As a 14-year-old I was meeting with my friends and we were talking about the political climate, not because we were activists, but because it was such a scary time. I had a nervous breakdown and I couldn’t figure out what had happened. It was because I felt that staying in Indonesia, it just didn’t allow for any creative thinking and I just felt trapped.”
“Being back in Australia, writing about these experiences, what happened in 1998 was intrinsic to the purge that happened in the 60’s. There was mass violence and it was just like “how can this happen again?” People were stealing rice and veggie oil because they didn’t want their families to starve. It was the same in the 60’s, before the purge!”
However, at the end of the day, High Tension are still in the business of creating scathing hardcore and metal; not just necessarily providing history lectures. In that regard, business is very good with this new record.
“Music as a medium is so important because it’s essentially a language”, mentions Karina.
“There are others that will listen to the record, and hopefully that’ll connect to them. I don’t want to set any manifesto’s or anything – it’s just a fucking record!”
“I feel really uneasy sometimes talking about our music”, she adds. “Because you can’t make someone see things in the way that you do. It’s such a personal thing. Sometimes I don’t share the way I listen to things and get connected to things and how it inspires me. It can be such a powerful thing”.
Given that half of the band are newish members since the release of ‘Bully’ (guitarist Mike Deslandes and drummer Lauren Hammel, also of Tropical Fuck Storm), it’s remarkable the band are putting out such powerful tunes on their first recording with said personnel.
“Mike was in a lot of great band’s, and also recorded a lot of my vocals for ‘Bully’. Plus, he’s now our songwriter” says Karina.
“He toured part of the ‘Bully’ run with us. So when it came to writing this third record, he was coming from a bit of an outside perspective and he presented us with all these riffs that he’d been working on.”
Touring alongside the likes of Deafheaven and King Parrot on the ‘Bully’ cycle is sure to have influenced such intense cuts, and when asked, Karina notes that its unlikely things will be changing any time soon.
“My general thing with any High Tension session is ‘Nah, it needs to be more brutal’”, she laughs. “So regarding that question, it was like that from the beginning. I just wanna play with Mindsnare or something!”
Even when asked (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) about the possibility of a grindcore outing from High Tension, there was a surprising amount of relevant experience to point towards.
“I did a weird grindcore project with this guy in Siberia,” admits Karina.
“I’d never met him, but he got all these metal singers from around the world including Kevin Sharp from Brutal Truth & Dave Hunt from Benediction, so when he asked me, I was like ‘No way!’. It’s like a grind and Samba-Fusion. It’s called Stench Price, so if you’re a fan of grind and ridiculous music then you might enjoy it.”
Well, dear readers, find out if you enjoy Stench Price or not below. It’s very interesting, to say the least.
All jokes (and surprising realities) aside, High Tension is a band that fully embraces the extreme, and the forthcoming ‘Purge‘ cycle promises to push the group further in a live format than ever before.
“I think this record has pushed each one of us into different realms of discomfort”, says the vocalist.
As for Karina, this extends over to the physical side of things too, with her saying, “I’m a person that never exercises, and yesterday my personal trainer told me ‘You’ve gotta stress the body to take it to the next level‘, and that resonated with me because of the intensity here. It’s a challenge!”
Such is the mission for the band, with their leader happily acknowledging that “I really hope that we can make more extreme records as the year’s progress.”
And given what chaos is about to land on June 15th, one can only imagine what that extreme musical future would look like…
High Tension’s ‘Purge’ drops on June 15th via Cooking Vinyl.