Got a great review of my new album Universal Frequencies at Ethnotechno.com
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Got a great review of my new album Universal Frequencies at Ethnotechno.com
|“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
The fact that the world is changing quickly has become one of the most often repeated clichés of our times. The truth of this is so obvious and the evidence so omnipresent that it almost doesn’t bear repeating. Yet, in our restless search for the new and different, ideas are tried out and discarded at such a rapid rate that understanding the nature of the change is almost impossible. Sadly, what passes for innovation is often little more than a repackaged presentation of old ideas as trends come and go in ever more predictable cycles, rendering our cultural expressions tired and lifeless. Nowhere is this sad state of creative stagnation more obvious than in the current state of popular music.
In the same way that the tightly held rules of visual art were thrown out the window a century and a half ago when painters who were not admitted to the formal academy in Paris staged their own exhibition with ‘The Salon de Refuses’, the rules governing music have experienced a similar loosening since the end of the second world war over sixty years ago. Without getting too deeply into the history of this change, it doesn’t require a lot of scrutiny to understand that after a flowering of different compositional forms such as bebop jazz, electric blues, folk, rock, funk, disco and ambient music, popular song craft has run aground to simply content itself with repeating old forms in slightly new disguises. Why anyone would listen to Lady Gaga when they could listen to Grace Jones, Bjork, or even Mae West do it better, or spend $250 a ticket to see the Eagles regurgitate their hits when they could hear Adham Shaikh create new music in the moment for a fraction of the cost are questions for a better mind than my own.
Artists like Adham Shaikh remind us that there is still something ‘going on’ and that the possibilities of creating vital music will never disappear as long as there are people not afraid to take risks and try something new, or reinterpret something very old and mysterious in a novel way. Listening to an album like Universal Frequencies reaffirms that music is only bound by the limits of imagination, and that the tired perambulations of popular culture as it continues to eat itself are not something we are required to accept and participate in. While it continues to be true that many of the ideas that composers like Shaikh are experimenting with are still being worked out beneath the radar of the dominant culture, the leaps and bounds taken by remix artists in the last decade have almost single handedly rescued popular song from completely falling into the torpor it has been wallowing in.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the new DJ culture and remix revolution is that it is not tied to a certain place. In the past, artists had to move to Paris, London, New York or whichever musical Mecca was ‘hot’ at the time to have a chance at a career. Today, some of the most daring ethnically-charged electronic music comes from India, Algiers or Bamako — in short, anywhere that there’s an outlet to plug a laptop or mixing board into. Shaikh hails from the Kootenays — a stunning wilderness area in Southeastern British Columbia — hardly an environment that leaps to mind as a hotbed of modern dance sounds. Yet, in the last decade or so Shaikh has produced twelve albums of cutting edge ambient, electronic, and world music grooves from his home studio near Nelson that are in every way the equal of the best sounds in the genre.
Just eight hours from the metropolis of Vancouver, amidst hills that grow some of the world’s finest marijuana and just a short drive from the home of the legendary Shambhala festival, Shaikh lives and works in an environment that allows him to concentrate on his music without the attendant distractions of big city life. Years of dedication have finally paid off as a single listen through the tracks on Universal Frequencies reveals that it is certainly the most fully realized CD of his career. With it, Shaikh has created a cycle of songs and soundscapes that are connected by a seamless flow that most other artists could only dream of achieving.
Like a contemporary Sergeant Pepper’s, the tracks on Universal Frequencies unfold effortlessly as at least one instrumental aspect or musical theme from each track is carried into the next song, creating a conversation that the listener can engage with in both an intellectual and a physical way. Whether it’s an accordion morphing from a background texture in one song to dictating the lead melody in the next or a lyrical idea that develops as the album progresses, there’s something in every beat to involve the listener here.
The album gets off to a nice meditative start with ‘Crossroads part one’ in which Prakesh Sontakke’s devotional chant and veena create a classical North Indian framework for Shaikh to sling the fluid webs that weave Universal Frequencies unique tapestry together. Next, water seems to be on Adham’s mind as he creates a trippy instrumental bedrock for Jeff Holden’s hip hop inspired delivery of ‘Water Prayer’ (Holden Space mix) and an Augustus Pablo-inspired melodica driven environment for ‘Water Prayer’ (Rasta Dub) that features some inspired toasting from Nicolas George Gabriel aka Jornick.
Throughout ‘Universal Frequencies,’ it is the juxtaposition of live performances and studio effects that give the record its raw organic power. Tracks like ‘Sonicturtles Coupe Decale’ express the joy of jamming in a West African style by meshing the expansive acoustics of the djembe and talking drum with Shaikh’s synths and beats so that the interposition of ancient and modern sounds is never jarring. The melodies created by Karamako Diabate on the electric guitar ride so effortlessly over these rhythms that Shaikh can invisibly slide into ‘Kundalini Fuel’ by referencing the guitar and the percussive grooves of the last track before taking the whole rhythm sideways by moving the eerie duduk sounds of Boris Sichon’s instrument to the front of the mix. It is this surreptitious juggling of themes to express movement and shifting musical ideas which distinguishes Universal Frequencies from so many other similar releases.
As the mists of the Balkan highlands tapers off as ‘Kundalini Fuel’ reaches an end, Shaikh reverberates his listeners through Saharan Sand to carry them back to King Tubby’s studio for ‘Desert Dub.’ But, before they can get too deeply into the Trenchtown groove, Shaikh inserts some inspired oud improvisations from Ben Johnson that invite us onto the ‘Desert Caravan’ so that the dance crowd can ride the bleeps and drums back to Adham’s lab and take in ‘New Day’ and ‘The Climb’, both solo tracks that allow Shaikh to demonstrate the warmth and expansiveness that can be achieved simply with beats and electronic textures. Like the previous mentioned Sergeant Pepper’s, Universal Frequencies ends with a refrain as Prakesh Sontakke and his veena reprise the sacred melody that began this musical journey.
Aside from being a beautifully produced and played album, Universal Frequencies and its creator, Adham Shaikh fill me with hope. I’ve loved music since childhood and have spent the last thirty or so years devouring everything I could listen to, but for the several years it’s seemed that everything has begun to stagnate and mindlessly repeat itself. While many of the sounds and concepts that Shaikh explores are not — in themselves — new, the way he approaches composition and juxtaposing musical themes is highly innovative and points to new avenues for future exploration. Adham Shaikh is becoming one of Canada’s most important artists and deserves our support and attention. Universal Frequencies is essential listening and should not be passed by.