It’s not so much that someone who picks up Shalabi Effect’s new album, Unfortunately, will be unprepared for what they hear—to be sure, Shalabi Effect is not the type of band that lends itself to browsing and picking up on a whim. Whoever grabs a Shalabi Effect album knows that they’re getting something experimental, something interesting, and most likely something very difficult. So while anyone who actually decides to give Unfortunately a spin will be prepared to handle it, it might still come as a bit of a surprise. Pink Abyss, Sam Shalabi and company’s most recent studio album to date, was also their most accessible, actually emphasizing melody and structure over the chaos (the latter of which still made its presence keenly felt). As such, to return headstrong into the fire of complete and total improv might come as a little bit of a shock.
Shalabi Effect hasn’t really reversed course, per se—as much as the sound quality might indicate that it’s a studio effort, Unfortunately is actually made completely of live material. As such, one of the easiest things to admire about Unfortunately is its restraint. Perhaps recognizing the fact that for as brilliant as any collective’s instrumentalists might be, improvised music can still come off as completely random and unnecessarily cacophonous, Shalabi Effect has whittled down multiple nights worth of performances (23-28 May, 2005, at the Montreal Arts Interculturelles Theatre), and turned them into one 51-minute compressed ball of energy. That is, the members of Shalabi Effect searched out the moments through their improv in which they truly gelled and sounded like one entity rather than four or five people playing, and turned those moments into the album. It’s an approach that more improv outfits could learn from, honestly.
Even given this approach, however, there are long stretches where Shalabi Effect still sounds like a noise-improv band. Most notably, they’ve chosen to scare anyone who isn’t into that particular scene away with their opening track, the thirteen-minute static, moan, and screech-infested “Out of the Closet”. Like a more subtle Merzbow, Anthony Seck, Sam Shalabi, Alexandre St. Onge, and Will Eizlini create industrial music of the original order, the type of music that was industrial when Throbbing Gristle coined the genre. Sirens, samples, and all manner of machines create an impenetrable barrier of sound that buzzes and burrows its way into the listener’s consciousness. It may be an incredibly difficult listen, but for what it is, it’s one of the spookiest, most engrossing bits of improvised noise you’re likely to come across.
The rest of Unfortunately is far more scattered, if also more accessible. “Harpie” is a beautiful example of just how impressive improv can be when a little restraint is offered, when the players decide to allow someone to come up with a general theme, and then proceed to build around that theme. The theme here is a lovely, vaguely middle-eastern guitar solo line that is eventually backed by subtle bass, another guitar content to ride a single note into the sunset, and some perfect, hand-played percussion work. “Early Reptilian Memories” takes percussion similar to that in “Harpie” and makes it the basis of the song, adding only extra hands (which together create a beat that veers helplessly between utterly random and incredibly complex) and some samples, while “Pai Nai” melds surf guitars and a rock beat with a distant meat grinder.
Interesting as the more accessible work is, however, the main reason for its presence is to make the more difficult tracks easier to swallow. “Monobrow” is a brilliant piece, the centerpiece of the disc, really, placed (appropriately enough) right in its center—eight and a half minutes of building samples, growing chaos, and building percussion centered around sets of five bass drum hits. It’s controlled chaos with a beat, quite reminicent of the work of Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key on his early Download material. Album closer “Skin Job” sounds as though it will go the same route, coupling static and guttural moans with wind chimes, but the surprise here is that the wind chimes win, ultimately closing the album along with a melodic combination of organ and electronic bass synth.
In short, Unfortunately is somehow simultaneously impenetrable and accessible, difficult and welcoming, headache-inducing and utterly calming. That duality was surely the intent, and while it’s an album that may not beg to be listened to all that often, it’s still an absolute success.