Terry Hall’s a man who’s not afraid to flirt with different musical genres, or to stay in any one musical incarnation for too long.
His first appearance on the pop charts came as frontman of the Specials, who were, alongside Madness, the forerunners of the ska revival in the UK during the late ’70s. From there, he moved on to front Fun Boy Three, who aren’t easily pigeonholed by any particular style, given that they covered George Gershwin’s “Summertime” before Hall composed what would become his best-known ditty: “Our Lips Are Sealed”, later taken to US chart success by the Go-Go’s. After Fun Boy Three had run their course, he formed the Colourfield and took his music in a less experimental, more melodic direction. Two albums later, he was done with that manifestation of his music and started up Terry, Blair, and Anouchka with Blair Booth and Anouchka Groce, which proved to be a one-album deal, much as did his collaboration with Eurythmic Dave Stewart. (The duo called themselves Vegas.) Finally, he broke down and just went solo, releasing two albums in the mid-’90s: 1995’s Home and 1997’s Laugh.
Since ’97, though, he’s been pretty quiet.
At last, however, he’s broken his silence and teamed up with Mushtaq, former member of Fun^Da^Mental, that’s a whole lot less poppy than anything he’s done since… well, it’s been ages, really. Of the many guises under which he’s performed over the years, this probably lands closest to Fun Boy Three than any of the others.
The Hour of Two Lights is described on the Astralwerks website as “fusing the Jewish and Arabic musical cultures which draws upon the duo’s own lineage — Terry Hall being a Polish refugee with a Jewish background and Mushtaq being a Middle Eastern Muslim.” The album was released in the UK on Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s Honest Jons label. Apparently, Albarn, who’d worked with Hall in the past (most notably on Hall’s Chasing a Rainbow EP), asked Hall to record an album for his label, to be produced by Mustaq; the two ended up with such a musical rapport, however, that the end result was a co-headlining gig, so to speak.
Describing the disc to someone proves kind of difficult, however, and the artists themselves are absolutely hopeless at it.
Hall concedes in the bio for the album, “I don’t think it fits with anything, really. I don’t know what it is. Or what it isn’t.”
“It’s nomadic,” suggests Mushtaq.
“And contemporary,” tries Hall.
“But with beats and bass lines.”
If that doesn’t help you in the slightest, you’re not alone.
Certainly, the phrase “Middle Eastern” would not be inappropriate to describe the general feel of The Hour of Two Lights, particularly given Mushtaq’s fondness for the darabuka as his percussion of choice, not to mention the use on the album of such instruments as the ney (an Iranian wind instrument), the oud (an Arabic lute), and the shenia (a double-reeded oboe favored in India). And, yet, there are credits for “scratch deejaying” and “rap” as well, so it’s far from being locked into any sort of ancient tradition or anything.
The more one listens to The Hour of Two Lights, the more it grows on you, though it can certainly be a bit off-putting at first if your frame of reference to Terry Hall is predominantly his recent solo albums and the songs he’s written with Ian Broudie for the Lightning Seeds. Additionally, Hall doesn’t take lead vocals on all the songs; vocal contributions are offered by Abdul Latif Assaly, Eva Katzler, Nathalie Barghach, Romany Rad, and, yes, Damon Albarn chimes in, too, though it doesn’t clarify who adds what to which song. (Best guest: our man Damon is on “Ten Eleven”, a track on which he claims a co-writing credit.) Sometimes, even when Hall is on a track, it takes him awhile to show up. “The Silent Wail”, for instance, does indeed begin with a long, mournful wail, and it’s far from a silent one; when Hall finally comes in at the 2:30 mark, however, the song kicks into gear and stays that way ’til it ends. Other highlights of the disc are “Stand Together”, which could pass for a Fun Boy Three outtake without much trouble at all, “A Tale of Woe”, arguably the most successful blending of the album’s world elements.
The Hour of Two Lights certainly isn’t pop music in the sense that the average working class sod in the US or UK view it, but the fault there surely lies as much in our narrow definition of pop music as it does anything else. Going in with an open mind, The Hour of Two Lights can expand one’s musical horizons considerably.
Not that Terry Hall probably had that in mind when he recorded it, mind you; his horizons have been expanded for ages.