Mephisto Halabi is a current moniker for drummer Julius Masri, a musician whose talents lay far, far, far beyond just keeping time on a drum kit. His album The Arabic Room doesn’t fit into any neat musical categories. I’d say that it doesn’t even belong in any of the not-so-neat categories, blending elements of eastern exoticism, circuit-bent electronics, and some of the heaviest free improvisations you might ever hear. Masri plays all of the instruments, from electronics and keyboards to Egyptian rababa, Azeri kamancheh, and the hammer dulcimer. The results are straight from the lab of a mad scientist, with sounds and ideas boiling over their beakers and test tubes, wrecking everything in their path. When I say that the music of Mephisto Halabi is almost uncategorizable, I’m not trying to find myself an easy out — I mean it.
The Arabic Room is named for a room in Masri’s house when he grew up in Lebanon. This particular sitting area, meant for guests, is a fixture in Lebanese culture, but Masri’s family gave their Arabic room their unique bent by mixing western and eastern cultures. When Masri’s family moved to America, they set up the same sort of room in their new house. This idea of an Arabic room, where cultures were free to collide in the eyes of the family’s guests, must have affected Masri as he was assembling this album. Even within the album’s first 20 seconds, sources start to ping violently off one another.
Starting with a muffled broadcast of what might be street music that is soon interrupted by a female announcer’s voice, “Watch on the Orient” is off and bulldozing, like Ancient Pistol hired a metal drummer. The lead instrument is so distorted that I can’t tell if it’s the rababa, the kamancheh, or something else. He reprises the manic melody at the album’s end but somehow manages to play it even faster. Extras like radiotronics and a double kick drum give the mix an extra jolt, not that it really needed it in the first place.
“Live Station Identification Broadcast From the Centrale” comes next, and it has very little to do with its predecessor. While Masri climbs up and down the keyboard, electronic tones try to catch up with one another as they ascend to a register within canine earshot. “The Esoteric Ordnance of Howling Mystics” combines one of the bowed instruments with the sound of a malfunctioning Atari. “Rana Ransom Dance Floor Crasher” throws repeated low-end thuds against a cyclical upper-register melody. Meanwhile, “Killer in the Sky” is some seriously surrealistic overdubbed vocalization.
The album’s tension takes a brief break at the start of “The New Sandy Bull Shit”, an eight-minute song where Masri’s stringed instrument and drum kit are recorded with equal clarity. Despite the song’s title, this represents a break-in-the-clouds moment that has been The Arabic Room so far. That has less to do with the album being cloudy and more to do with it being downright stormy. If The Arabic Room isn’t a groundbreaking mixture of styles, it’s at least a very daring one enhanced by Masri’s musicianship. His improvisational skills are quite extraordinary, but his musical intuition kicks it all up a notch or three. Being released towards the end of November, The Arabic Room might miss a few year-end lists, but you still owe it to yourself to not let it slip away.