The folks in Niyaz have been busy these past couple of years. Singer Azam Ali has taken time to have a child and release a solo album in his honor, 2011’s excellent From Night to the Edge of Day. Loga Ramin Torkian, the group’s main songwriter/arranger/multi-instrumentalist (and also Ali’s husband) teamed up with vocalist Khosro Ansari to release the recent Mehraab, a strong set of tunes that fits in well with Niyaz’s general musical approach, yet sounds markedly different being delivered by a male voice. These records are the product of the same fruitful musical minds that made Niyaz’s last record, 2008’s Nine Heavens, such a rewarding listen.
That album came as a two-disc set, with the bonus disc recreating the songs on acoustic instruments, eschewing the band’s tendency toward sythetic sounds and understated studio knob-twiddling. This time around, the band’s latest album Sumud returns to explore those electronic tendencies more, perhaps, than ever before. This is a good thing, because this far into the band’s career, there is something of a risk of diminishing returns.
Those diminished returns make themselves known right off the bat. There is nothing wrong with the tune that opens this set, “Parishaan”, it just sounds mighty familiar. Ali’s breathy voice carries the tunes, falling somewhere between a whisper, a chant, and a drone, and the instrumentation is tasteful and atmospheric. The sound is distinctly bottom heavy, with plenty of hand percussion and rolling, echoey bass tone.
So far, though, there is little to differentiate it from previous Niyaz records. There is a good balance between traditional instruments like oud ans saz, and wispy layers of synthesizer—this is Niyaz’s signature sound after all. Few bands out there are playing electro-traditional versions of Persian, Kurdish and Middle Easterns songs, and if a listener has never heard this one before, then s/he is apt to be impressed. Longtime followers, though, will be forgiven for scratching their heads and saying, “Okay, now what?”
Happily, things pick up after this. “Sosin” ramps up the synth elements, which might be a problem for folk-trad purists, but then again they’re probably not listening to this band anyway. With creaky grunts and electronic zaps provided by the band’s third core member, Carmen Rizzo, “Sosin” suggests the direction for much of the rest of the album: away from the acoustic and deeper into the electronic sphere.
This is immediately reflected in a couple of the strongest songs on the record, “Shah Sanam” and “Mazaar”. The former opens with more layers of pulsing synth tones, perfectly balanced by Ali’s voice, which is animated enough to bounce across a relatively uptempo melody line. “Mazaar” places the emphasis squarely on Ali, with a few violin accents and a heap of reverb to balance the underlying percussion. It manages to do what Niyaz does better than anyone else, yet at the same time to sound new.
The balance of the album straddles these two worlds. Some tunes venture a little deeper into the electonic side of things, while others pull back to introduce guest musicians of a more traditional bent. Some tunes sound like they could have come from an earlier record (“Masooz”, “Arzusun”), while others, like “Dertli” and the loping “Rayat al Sumud”, continue to experiment with new sounds.
This isn’t quite a place-holding album, but neither is it a full step in the band’s evolution. Next time around, maybe the sonic progression will be more pronounced. Then again, maybe not. In any case, this record should be quite solid enough to satisfy current fans, and maybe even make some new one.