Release Date: July 24, 2015
First thing you notice about Omar Souleyman’s second studio album (and kajillionth when you count his live catalog) is the tempo. Bahdeni Nami’s opening “Mawal Menzal,” jogs roughly ten, maybe even 20 bpm behind the bulk of his work, which is usually frantic and marvelous, not a coincidence. “Mawal Menzal” is less of a departure than a screw ‘n’ chop: it’s slower for no apparent dynamic reason, vocals reaching less for the back of the audience than the echoless walls of a racquetball court. It doesn’t sound designed for dancing. It sounds like a guy talking (not bellowing) to himself and awaiting the music’s answer. It roils on more or less at the speed of millennial, Timbaland- and Storch-produced bounce-shake-clap, but it’s the first thing he’s ever done that would be patently inappropriate at a party or wedding.
Thing is, the 49-year-old progenitor and ambassador of electrified Syrian dabke was born for the stage. Most of his records were tracked straight to the mixing board from live gigs, particularly 2011’s bracing Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts, whose ominous, drumless intro was cut at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, with others in Belgium, Denmark and Germany. For a guy who mostly stands still onstage as his keyboardist Rizan Sa’id covers the manic splay of white-lightning Phrygian modes, crowds go nuts for him with good reason. Titles like “Kaset Hanzel” always translated to laments like “Drinking From the Glass of Bitterness,” but the man’s bluesy groans always made for a sharp juxtaposition with the beats’ hyperactive neon rush. 2013’s Four Tet-produced studio debut Wenu Wenu was almost as great but had an inert, audience-less feel to it from being cut in a room. Now Bahdeni Nami forgoes the speed as well.
Sa’id and saz (lute) player Khaled Youssef curl their single-note threadwork around these seven songs (well, six and a remix) as furiously and densely as usual. But here the seven-, eight- and nine-minute lengths grow as wearing as the man’s past releases always threatened to, without actually losing momentum. The instrumentation is more traditional, with lute lines that almost sound plucked rather than programmed on “Tawwalt El Gheba,” the closest thing here to a classic Souleyman raver. But either from the variety or the myriad producers (Modeselektor, Four Tet again, Giles Peterson, who are all either too hands-on or hands-off), the music’s exploration of a dog-irritatingly high tonal range is almost unlistenable at times.
Modeselektor’s “Leil El Bareh” is by far the biggest offender, with almost no low end as the percussion struggles to achieve more than a rainy-day pitter-patter beneath the irritable stab of a right-hand synth figure that rears its head on and off without warning. Souleyman is fighting to retain a signature sound that he owns and propagates better than anybody, yet these changes feel misbegotten and his producers struggle to find something to do with an established, repetitive sound that both needs no improvement and yet struggles to open up new crevices. Only the exploding bubbles of TB-303 acid on Legowelt’s “Bahdeini Nami” remix offer a real departure, and Souleyman feels uncomfortably submerged beneath them. A gracious host for the wild instrumentation in the past, he feels somewhat absent from this record; he tours enough that it’s no insult to presume he’s just tired.
Sham Palace’s excellent 2012 Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran compilation suggests all manner of arrangements and flavors that Souleyman’s more razored-down sound hasn’t yet explored; it would be a shame for a true master of his own inventive synthesis (and fervent live experience) to grind himself into the ground this quickly after receiving such fruitful outside attention. Maybe he should go full-on acoustic, or enlist an adventurous duet partner like his onetime remix client Björk. But simply slowing down is slowing him down.