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Frédéric D. Oberland / Grégory Dargent / Tony Elieh / Wassim Halal, "SIHR"

SIHRThis unique quartet unusually originated as a collaboration between two French photographers, as Frédéric D. Oberland and Grégory Dargent performed some improvised duo concerts a few years back to accompany screenings and exhibits in Cairo, Beirut, and elsewhere. The duo was then expanded into a quartet to include Lebanese bassist Tony Elieh and darbuka player Wassim Halal and a three-day "improvised sound bacchanalia" ensued. The foursome describe themselves as a "post-anything quartet featuring multi-instrumentalists from the Mediterranean inland Sea" and share an ambitious vision of "new folklore for a devastated planet" and "tangos danced on the glowing ashes of our days." In less colorfully poetic terms, SIHR is a visceral and freewheeling collision of Arabic percussion, snatches of Middle Eastern melodies, timeless folk instrumentation, and ambitiously weird/mangled/abused synth sounds. In fact, literally everyone other than Halal plays a synth of some kind, which makes for a deeply strange collision of traditional music and outré electronics. While SIHR only fully transcends its improvisatory roots on the more melodic and sax-driven "YouGotALight," the album as a whole is an oft-fascinating outlier and this quartet truly never resembles any other improv ensemble that I have encountered.

Sub Rosa

The opening "Oui-Ja'aa" is a fairly representative plunge into this foursome's bizarre collision of disparate aesthetics, as Halal's clattering percussion builds into a hypnotic groove while a maniacally insistent synth figure wanders and trills all over the place. It eventually becomes a bit more melodic in the second half, but the endlessly propulsive and shapeshifting groove is the highlight by a landslide, as it sounds like it could be a live recording of Can on a particular great and adventurous night. Aside from that, "Oui-Ja'aa" also sounds at times like Catherine Christer Hennix has just ridden a war elephant into a Middle Eastern street fair. The following "Enuma Ellis" cools things down a bit, however, resembling something between a strain of droning oud-driven desert rock and a ritualistic street procession gnawed by pulsing swells of howling distorted electric guitar (Oberland's handiwork, I imagine). "YouGotALight" then further reduces the intensity to a sublime simmer, as Oberland's alto sax sensuously weaves a melody across a subdued landscape of quivering and rippling minor key arpeggios, dubwise percussion, melodic bass, and spasms of electric guitar. The final minute is especially wonderful, as a melodic crescendo unexpectedly drifts in. Frankly, it sounds like the best song that Barn Owl never recorded.

While "YouGotALight" is my favorite piece on the album, most of the other highlights fall on the album's second half. For example, "OhmShlag (Quake Tango)" feels like a darkly lysergic mirage of a serpentine industrial assembly line in a foreboding desert landscape, while "Babel Cedex" offers a different strain of mechanized desert nightmare that also sounds like a howling and frenetic krautrock outro. If I am not in the right mood, "Babel Cedex" can feel like a bit of an indulgent cacophony, as the bassist, percussionist, and sax player are all playing at go-for-broke intensity by the end, but they admittedly whip up quite a bracingly visceral and gnarled freak-out nonetheless. The following "Black Powder" is similarly outré, but considerably more understated and melodic. It almost sounds like it is being steered in three different directions at once, as the guitars have an arty laptop-ravaged Pita/Fennesz feel, but they are joined by a dub-wise post-punk bass line and clattering eruptions of free drumming, yet the broken, stammering groove somehow works anyway (to my ears, it evokes a mosaic slowly falling off a wall piece by piece). Naturally, the closing piece is no less bizarre, as Elieh's insistent "locked groove" bass pattern anchors a chaos of stuttering industrial sounds, laser noises, clattering drums, and animalistic howls as a simple, unhurried guitar melody languorously unfolds.

My main caveat with SIHR is that the unrelenting dramatic intensity can be a bit much, which is an issue that I have had with some of Oberland's other work as well, but that is merely a fundamental difference in our temperament (I am generally quite drama-averse in my taste). My other caveat is similarly subjective, as I cannot help but wonder how different this album would have been if these four musicians had had more than three days to figure out how to weave together their divergent individual sensibilities. It is easy to imagine that a more melodic and groove-centered album might have resulted, but that does not necessarily mean that it would have been a better one. There is definitely something to be said for the daredevil spontaneity of throwing four adventurous musicians together without allowing them adequate time to find a shared common ground or sand down clashing idiosyncrasies. I don't think anyone involved knew where this album was headed and that genuinely seems to have worked in the quartet's favor, as SIHR is as raw, explosive, and unpredictable as a howl of anguish. While I would definitely stop short of calling anything on this album a tango, SIHR does genuinely have the cathartic feel of an end-times death dance in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as flaming birds drop from the sky (and I sincerely doubt that any other album released this year will be able to plausibly make such a claim).

Listen here.