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Tag: middle eastern rock

Mamak Khadem’s Rapturous New Album Transcends Tragedy and Loss

One of the most capriciously cruel effects of the post-2020 lockdowns was the separation of families from ailing, elderly parents. Because of totalitarian travel restrictions, singer Mamak Khadem was unable to return home to her native Iran to see her father before he died: divide-and-conquer taken to a particularly sadistic extreme. Khadem channeled her grief into an often wrenchingly beautiful, immersive tribute, Remembrance, streaming at youtube.

Although the album is characteristically eclectic and spans many genres, it’s 180 degrees from the exuberance and exhilaration of her previous release The Road, a 2016 brass-and-string fueled mashup of Balkan dances and classical Persian poetry. For whatever reason, this is more of an art-rock record.

The sound is more desolate and enveloping, sculpted largely by multi-instrumentalist Jamshied Sharifi, guitarist Marc Copely and cellist Chris Votek, with many other musicians contributing. Khadem sings in Farsi, opening with the title track. Mickey Raphael’s forlorn, bluesy minor-key harmonica is an unexpected touch in this slowly swaying setting of the Saadi Shirazi poem, Copely’s multitracks and Khadem’s imploring, melismatic vocals flickering over Sharifi’s atmospheric backdrop. It brings to mind peak-era, mid-zeros Botanica.

Khadem rises from a wary tenderness to fullscale angst in Mina, a brooding, drifting setting of a Saied Soltanpour text lowlit by Sharifi’s piano and Benjamin Wittman’s clip-clop percussion. Khadem goes to the Rumi repertoire for the lyrics to Entangled over dissociative, rhythmic layers of vocals, cello and wafting synthesized orchestration.

Khadem takes a backseat, contributing vocalese to Across the Oceans, Coleman Barks narrating the Rumi poem over a loopy, simple backdrop with spare contributions from Roubik Haroutunian on duduk and Ivan Chardakov on gaida bagpipes. Dead and Alive begins more calmly, in a pastoral Pink Floyd vein, then Copely pulls the energy skyward. It’s an apt poem for this point in history: one of its central themes is to be open to serendipity.

Khadem sets an emotive Fatemeh Baraghani poem to a starkly gorgeous traditional Armenian theme in Face to Face, Mehdi Bagheri adding ravishing, spiraling kamancheh fiddle. Copely plays spare resonator guitar behind Khadem’s warm, hopeful delivery in Messenger, Sharifi turning up the enveloping keyboard ambience. The final cut is Don’t Go Without Me: Barks’ English narration is especially poignant considering the circumstances, as is Khadem’s gentle, wounded interpretation of the original. As her harmonies rise in the distance, the effect is viscerally heartbreaking.

A Rare Glimpse of New Artists Coming Out of Iran

One of the more intriguing playlists that ended up on the hard drive here last year was the Homanity compilation of recent music by Iranian artists, streaming at Spotify. The segues are weird, but that’s to be expected considering the diversity of styles on it.

It’s on the quiet side, more influenced by traditional Iranian folk, European pop and art-rock sounds than the inimitably funky psychedelia that was all the rage there before the 1979 counterrevolution. The fourteen artists on the record sing in Farsi. A promised cheat sheet for Farsi-deprived English speakers never materialized, but, many stranger things have happened over the past twenty-one hellish months. At this point, it’s a miracle that artists outside the free world continue to release any music at all.

The first track is crooner Sattar’s Farghi Nemikoneh, a lilting midtempo minor-key folk-rock tune with a delicately melismatic string section and a nimbly picked interweave of acoustic and electric guitars. Chanteuse Nikita goes for understated Eurovision drama in the second track, Yadam Nemire, which could be the Gipsy Kings with a woman out front.

TarantisT contribute Soldiering, a steadily marching, surreal mashup of death metal, hip-hop and 80s goth. Singer Shery M channels muted angst and full-on longing over neoromantic piano and spare rock guitar in Havaye Khooneh.

The best-known band here, Kiosk are represented by Parviz, an uncharacteristically low-key, twinkling Iranian approximation of late 60s Velvet Underground. There’s more moody, chanteusey trip-hop with Shab, by Shaya and Soltan, by Justina.

Bardia Taghipour builds his warily rising and falling ballad, Baba, around a familiar art-rock descending riff. Hero & Frya‘s In Manam harks back to 70s American acid rock. The lone hip-hop track here is Raay Bee Raay, by Behrouz Ghaemi.

Arash Rahbary features in two stark, spare poetic epics: Khoon Bood, with activist and dissenter Fatemeh Ekhtesari, and Gorbeh, with Mehdi Moousavi.

Becca Stevens and the Secret Trio Team Up For Balkan and Middle Eastern-Tinged Magic

Since the zeros, songwriter Becca Stevens has built a distinctive and often brilliant body of work, playing shapeshifting art-rock and chamber pop with a rotating cast who typically draw on a jazz background. She’s also an aptly quirky and brilliant reinterpreter of Bjork.

The Secret Trio are one of the world’s foremost Near Eastern ensembles. Stevens’ decision to collaborate with them has paid off with the best album she has ever made, streaming at Spotify. It’s unlike anything else that’s ever been recorded.

The album opens with Flow in My Tears, a catchy, loopily rhythmic, vaguely Indian-tinged tone poem of sorts. Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet looms broodingly within the lattice of Ara Dinkjian’s oud and Tamer Pınarbaşı’s kanun. Is the line “flow in my tears,” or “flow in my beer?” Both? Either one works.

Pınarbaşı’s elegant ripples prove to make a perfect background, Dinkjian adding magical textures in Bring It Back, a simple, lilting trip-hop tune. The tantalizingly brief, achingly melismatic clarinet solo toward the end is the icing on the cake.

Stevens builds enigmatic, misty multitracks over more Indian-flavored trip-hop in We Were Wrong. Sometimes Dinkjian plays a simple bassline, sometimes breaking the surface, Lumanovski adding mysterious accents. Stevens’ guitar mingles with the ripples from the kanun from the oud in California, an uneasy, enigmatic nocturne with what seem to be references to the refugee crisis.

Lumanovski’s otherworldly dipping, floating lines introduce Stevens’ mighty, wordless one-woman choir in Eleven Roses, a gorgeously Armenian-flavored tableau. Her ripe, moody vocals echo Jenifer Jackson in Lucian, a trickily rhythmic, equally gorgeous tune, Dinkjian anchoring the soaring, flurrying lines of the clarinet and kanun: Pınarbaşı’s solo will give you goosebumps.

Stevens contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising” in Pathways, a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. Lush layers of vocals float over spare, loopy phrases throughout the next track, Maria

Lullaby For the Sun is a cheerfully lilting pre-dusk theme that gives way to a brief, poignant oud solo before Stevens picks up the pace again. The group imaginatively recast a very Beatlesque riff as incisive Balkan music in The Eye, a metaphorically loaded view of individual powers of perception. The four musicians close this magically cross-pollinated collaboration with a swaying, optimistic, soaring anthem, For You the Night Is Still.

This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

A Mesmerizing, Haunting, Potently Relevant New Album From Turkish Singer Olcay Bayir

In March of last year, singer Olcay Bayir and her band were two days away from leaving on a tour – sponsored by the British government, no less. Then the lockdown crushed the performing arts in almost every country around the world.

In the days since, Bayir has not been idle. She made a name for herself with a rapturously beautiful album of traditional Turkish music back in 2015. Her new ep, Inside (İçerde) is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a showcase for her increasingly remarkable ability to shift gears stylistically, but at the same time it’s a portrait of anguish and frustration.

Conventional wisdom is that working over the web is seamlessly efficient, but in reality the reverse is true. Issues that could be ironed out in the company of musicians onstage or in the studio take hours or even days when they’re separated by continents. Which makes this achievement all the more impressive, considering how much adversity Bayir and her global supporting cast had to tackle.

The first track is Asude (At Peace), her voice wounded and imploring. She sings in Turkish: the last line of the chorus is “My last words are for you, but I can’t say them.” Behind her, guitarist Ignacio Lusardi Monteverde and bağlama player Huseyin Murat Sığırcı build flamenco intensity over Memed Mert Baycan’s percussion.

Track two, Ela is completely different, an echoey, psychedelic art-rock collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Deniz Mahir Kartal, based on a love poem by iconic medieval Turkish bard Karacaoğlan. Bayir really reaches for the rafters here.

The album’s third song, Yalnizlik (Loneliness) is a somewhat more organic but equally dramatic strain of art-rock. Serdar Barçın – of Turkish psychedelic legends Yeni Turku – contributes pensively circling ney flute over a steady background from pianist Christian Prior, bassist Tom McCredie and percussionist Kostas Kopanaris.

The final cut is the key to the record. In Kayip Cocuk (Lost Child), Bayir draws the connection between the horrors of children orphaned by war, and the pandemic of child abuse that followed in the wake of the lockdown. She doesn’t address this head-on, but it’s going to take an enormous amount of therapy and compassion to heal the trauma of an entire generation who were terrorized into believing that proximity to other people is deadly.. Erdi Arslan’s moody düdük filters through Alistair MacSween’s tersely atmospheric keys as Bayir rises from gentle consolation to full-blown anguish. It’s an anthem for our time – and this is one of the best short albums of the year.

Spot-On, Slinky Retro 70s Turkish Psychedelia From Umut Adan

Today’s album is Bahar (meaning “spring”), by Turkish psychedelic rocker Umut Adan., streaming at Spotify. He looks back to classic 70s Turkish psychedelic acts like Cem Karaca, Fikret Kızılok and Erkin Koray, both musically and lyrically, with slightly more digital 21st century production values. It’s hard to think of a catchier record released over the past year or so.

Authoritarian regimes have a history of crushing artists who make people think (USA, 2020, right?) and many of the acts Adan draws on paid a heavy price for their innovations and political fearlessness, even if they often cached their messages in metaphors, or allusions to classic poetry and mythology. Adan salutes that while remaining true to their distinctive sound: minor-key fuzztone guitar, trebly bass and keys, and scurrying drums, perfectly capsulized by the album’s allusively funky opening track, Bembeyaz Cananim.

The fuzztone goes way down, further than the bass in the swaying, dirgey Seytanin Aklini Celdim. Ortasindan Gel is a brisk. bouncy folk-rock song, a Turkish take on Rubber Soul era Beatles. Gunes has plinky sax lute behind the muted ba-bump rhythm and warpy fuzztone sway.

The album’s starkest track is the broodingly anthemic Zaman Zaman, just acoustic rhythm guitar, vocals and an ominous flange guitar riff. Dunyalardan Sen Bahar could be a low-key track from London Calling, a cheery tropically-tinged riff kicking off the verses. Sevdigimi Sectim gallops along with a dusky desert rock-style groove, while the lithely dancing, midtempo Bandirma Baskent Oldu could be a 21st century act like the Mystic Braves or Allah-Las with Turkish lyrics.

The mutedly pulsing Arabam Kaldi is the most musically stripped-down, and in that sense poppiest, tune here. Heavy drums and bass anchor Kadikoylu Kadikoylu, lo-fi synth oscillating way back in the mix. Adan closes the record with Ana Baba Baci Gardas, a darkly bristling, rhythmically tricky psych-folk tune, running his vocals through a watery Leslie speaker.

A Gorgeously Dark Album of Adventurous, Psychedelic Afghani Rubab Music From Quais Essar

Today’s album is on the shortlist of the best this blog has received over the past couple of years that were patiently waiting their turn on the hard drive here. Qais Essar, whose axe is the Afghani rubab lute, may not be a household word, but he’s attracted the attention of a whole slew of western musicians. His latest album The Ghost You Love Most is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s pretty exotic compared to the bands whose artists play on it. On the other, it’s not that far removed from the Turkish psychedelia or, for that matter, some of the rock-ish sounds that came out of Iran in the 1960s and early 70s.

He opens it with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a spare, slow, haunting anthem that’s practically a Nashville gothic ballad. Christopher Votek’s cello and Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio–Miller’s organ add elegaic lustre behind the stately rhythm section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Thierry Amar on bass and Ray Belli on drums. The ending is even more surreal: they take it doublespeed, making quasi-bluegrass out of a lick seemingly ripped straight from lite-jazz guy Grover Washington Jr.

Essar’s rubab ripples, weaves and flurries frantically throughout the album’s swaying title track, spiced by delicate textures from Kamaljeet Alhuwalia on santoor and Cenk Erodgan on fretless guitar.

Journey to Qaf begins as a chilling, Lynchian dirge, Sheela Bringi’s harp contrasting with the resonance of the cello and Essar’s spare, broodingly emphatic phrasing. They eventually pick up the pace, but never so much that they manage to leave the shadows behind.  Rhitom Sarkar contributes a lingering alap (improvisation) on Indian slide guitar to open Sohini Surf, then Essar takes over and they motor along with a muted surf beat.

The group slow down again for The Simurgh, Essar’s steady, banjo-like lines, echoed by Erodgan’s shivery melismatics over Justin Gray’s stately, rising bass veena. They end the album with a gorgeously bittersweet, pastorally-tinged wordless ballad. It’s music to get completely lost in.

Another Gorgeous, Mesmerizing Middle Eastern Rock Record From King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard might be the most prolific psychedelic band in the world. Over the past several years they’ve released more albums than just about anyone other than Satoko Fujii or the Pocket Gods. Their epic double live album Chunky Shrapnel ranked high on the Best Albums of 2020 page here; their latest, simply titled L.W. is streaming at Bandcamp and might be even better.

From the first few crashing notes of the opening number, If Not Now, Then When? it’s clear that this is going to be one of their gorgeously uneasy Turkish-influenced records, a theme and variations: a Turkish rock symphony of sorts. Frontman Stu Mackenzie’s guitar and Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s blippy keys mingle in a microtonal Near Eastern mode over the disco-ish strut of bassist Lucas Harwood and drummer Michael Cavanagh.

With its oudlike melismas, track two, O.N.E. is where all the guitarists, including Cook Craig and Joey Walker join the slinky snakecharmer mix. With all the guitars hitting the baglama-like chromatic riffs of Pleura, the intensity grows while the rhythms get trickier.

Supreme Ascendancy has spikier, harplike textures, swirly organ and even an even more bracing microtonal edge. Incisive acoustic riffs, echoey electric washes and a little acidic Turkish zurna oboe permeate the mellotron drift of Static Electricity, arguably the album’s best and doomiest track. East West Link makes a good segue: it’s sort of the radio edit, with a buzzing, burning guitar/zurna duel over Cavanagh’s clip-clop beat.

They bring more of a fuzztone garage rock attack to the hypnotic Ataraxia. Rippling, kanun-like keys take centerstage in See Me, Harwood’s tense hammer-ons fueling the big crescendo. The band close with a track they call K.G.L.W., a serious epic where they bring everything full circle in their heaviest attack. These lizard kings have made more good albums over the years than just about anybody and this is one of their very best.

Iranian Rock Rules at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center Out of Doors was packed this past evening. The message was clear: New Yorkers, or at least a large subset of us, love Iranian music. On a triplebill that began with a tantalizingly short set by all-female hometown crew Habibi and ended with crooner Faramarz Aslani and his band, rock band Kiosk played one of the best sets of any group in this city this year.

Frontman Arash Sobhani entertained the crowd with his sardonic sense of humor, edgy, mythologically influenced Farsi lyrics and slashingly individualistic Stratocaster chops. His fellow axeman Mohammad Talani wailed and slunk, a nonchalantly powerful presence on a big hollowbody Gibson while bassist Ali Kamali bubbled over the steady, funk-influenced beats of drummer Yahya Alkhansa.

The early part of the set was an update on the psychedelic “Farsi funk” that was all the rage in Iran prior to the 1979 Khomeini takeover, and brutally suppressed thereafter (Kiosk take their name from the kind of venues available for confrontational rock in their Teheran  hometown). Hits like Love For Speed (a sarcastic parable about Teheran traffic), the cautionary tales Everybody’s Asleep and Bulldozer each had a minor-key psych-funk feel grounded by a heavier than usual drumbeat for that style, Sobhani evoking peak-era Leonard Cohen with both his vocals and his chord changes. On guitar, he fired off purist, icepick Chicago blues leads but also slithery volleys of chromatics that were a dead giveaway for the group’s origins.

Talani hung back with his rhythm early on but once he got a chance to cut loose, he took a couple of the darker anthems to angst-fueled peaks with his screaming, anguished leads, like a Middle Eastern David Gilmour. Meanwhile, Sobhani led the group through an eclectic mix that included a pensively crescendoing contemplation of exile, then a rapidfire, punkish romp through a melody that he said was originally Iranian but eventually became a klezmer melody (it sounded Russian).

A couple of shuffling numbers after that could have been American ghoulabilly save for the linguistic difference. After a detour into what could have been dub reggae but wasn’t, and a tune that brought to mind Gogol Bordello, they did a silly faux Chuck Berry tune about a legendary Iranian bootlegger who got jail time for pirating AC/DC records. This group is huge in the Iranian diaspora but should be vastly better known beyond that world.

Habibi deserved more than fifteen minutes onstage. What they lack in tightness they make up for in originality. Lead guitarist Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch fired off needling tremolo-picked riffs over the tense surf-ish rhythm sectdion of bassist Erin Campbell and drummer Karen Isabel as rhythm guitarist Leah Beth Fishman added rainy-day chords that sometimes edged toward Lush dreampop, frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard singing coolly and matter-of-factly, mostly in Farsi. From their brief, Arabic-tinged instrumental intro through a mix of Breeders jangle, Ventures stomp and Farsi funk, they’re developing an intriguing, distinctive sound. Give the rhythm section a year to get their chops up to speed, and this band could be dangerous.

Backed by six-piece band including flamenco guitarist and musical director Babak Amini, Aslani got the crowd singing and dancing along to his allusively biting lyrics set to pleasant, flute-fueled Mediterranean and Brazilian-inflected acoustic ballads that often brought to mind the Gipsy Kings. An icon of Iranian music since the 70s, he’s a wordsmith and connoisseur of classical Persian poetry first and foremost.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 29 with art-rock guitarist Jonathan Wilson – of Roger Waters’ band – doing his own material. Getting into the show this particular evening was easy, but you might want to show up before 7:30 PM showtime if you want a seat.

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

Wild Turkish Psychedelic Rock Rescued From Obscurity

One of the most amazing albums released this year is Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu, a compilation streaming at Spotify that pays homage to the Turkish cassette label that released some of the wildest, most surreal sounds to emerge from that part of the world. Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this trippy ten-track playlist collects hard funk, symphonic rock, disco, electrified Turkish traditional ballads and anthems…and what sounds like a long radio commercial.

String synth, organ, wry wah synth and soaring, otherworldly, microtonal zurna oboe mingle in Zor Beyler’s suspenseful, lushly anthemic Gozumdeki Yaslar. The second track, by guitarslinger Erkin Koray, is a one-chord heavy funk jam, fuzztone acid lead guitar over loping bass and drums, with an emphatic spoken-word lyric: Turkish rap from forty years ago!

Powerful baritone crooner Kerem Guney’s Sicak Bir Sevda is a slashing, richly catchy Middle Eastern rock gem, sparkling electric baglama trading off with spare yet searing electric guitar. Asik Emrah’s Bu Ellerden Gocup is one of the trippiest cuts here, a mashup of psychedelic latin funk and spiky, oscillating Turkish classical sounds – is that an electric saz lute that’s taking that twistedly oscillating solo?

Longing and hazy angst pervade Yar Senin Icin, by chanteuse Elvan Sevil, a trickily syncopated, broodingly catchy anthem blending austere guitar with more of that delicious electric saz. Seker Oglan’s epic dancefloor jam Akbaba Ikilisi has a straightforwardly slinky, disco-tinged groove and similarly tasty, microtonal fretboard melismatics. Deniz Ustu Kopurur nicks a classic Stooges riff for Unal Buyukgonenc, a similarly vast, shapeshifting web of enigmatic reverb guitar and similarly reverb-drenched zurna: it’s the most psychedelic number here.

Nese Alkan gives her vocals a suspenseful, dramatic allure in Kacma Guzel, which comes across as sort of proto Balkan reggae. The compilation’s final track, by Ali Ayhan, mashes up wah funk and majestically sweeping, starkly string-driven Turkish balladry. All this begs the question of how many other treasures are lurking in the Uzelli vaults. In the meantime, New Yorkers can catch a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 24 at 8 PM at Drom with a current Turkish psychedelic band, the ominously majestic Philadelphia-based Barakka. Cover is $10.