Done well, a “best of” album makes for a solid introduction to a band; The Best of Niyaz is undoubtedly done well, as each of the 13 tracks was handpicked as favorites of the group. In addition, several are newer versions of older songs, and one is even brand new, released here for the first time. As a result, the collection is a worthy listen for both diehard fans and anyone who needs a Niyaz primer.
If you’re one of the latter, here are the facts: in 2004, vocalist and santour player Azam Ali and multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian set traditional Sufi poems and Middle Eastern songs to trance grooves under the moniker Niyaz. They founded the group with renowned producer Carmen Rizzo, who has since left. Here are the value judgments: Niyaz makes some of the most sensual and hypnotic electronic music of this century (so far), and the duo does so with an exciting mix of the old (some of the poems they take come from medieval times) and the new.
Ali is the more visible member of the group because her powerhouse singing has taken her everywhere from collaborations with Serj Tankian and Buckethead to Marvel movie soundtracks. Her voice is less of a sound and more like water: mutable and yet unstoppable. It takes on different shapes and tones at different times, dripping through cracks or pouring forth until it fills all empty space. In controlling her voice with such skill, Ali can command a room, making the world bob, weave, and sway at will. Her melodies enchant and offer complex patterns against hard, steady beats. This compilation is proof that it’s no fluke: Ali’s voice is almost perfect on each track.
I say almost because there is one lackluster track on here: “Del”, the aforementioned new track. Previously unreleased, it would’ve been better off left that way. “Del” is not a bad song, but neither Ali’s voice nor its melodies are justified and interesting. On a standard-issue studio album, this would simply be a slight disappointment, easily shrugged off as an imperfect song. However, on a sequence classified as The Best of, it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed when the only brand new song turns out to be something less than a revelation.
As significant as it feels to be let down at the very end of an album, “Del” is a mere bump in the road for Niyaz. Every other track shines just as brightly now as at initial recording or release. Impeccable production allows for layers of lush instrumentation to sound both full and light enough to billow upward. This is Niyaz at its most mystical, captivating, and fiery.
Niyaz does tend toward the melodramatic, and while Ali and Torkian could cheekily be called a husband-and-wife folk music duo, their music won’t find a place among subtle, milquetoast acoustic rockers. Every element here is a commitment. Nothing is done halfway and everything is meant to evoke a specific image that might help to carry out Niyaz’s ultimate goal as a band: unite through music.