If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.
Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.
The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.
Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.
A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani. The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.
In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.