Re-Considering the First Five Muslimgauze Releases in Memory of Bryn Jones

Muslimgauze’s first five releases are some of the most interesting, fully-realized artifacts to crawl out of the early 1980s industrial, experimental drainpipe.

On 14 January 1999, experimental electronic music lost one of its most singular voices when Bryn Jones died at the age of 38 of a fungal blood infection. As Muslimgauze, Jones left behind one of the most extensive discographies in music history, of any genre, with hundreds of full-length albums, EPs, singles, collaborations, remixes, one-offs, and multimedia documents. 

It’s also one of the most unique. Over the span of 15 years, Jones’ style, aesthetic, and themes verged on the monomaniacal, almost exclusively focusing on the conflict in the Middle East, with a rabidly pro-Palestinian stance.

Despite the breadth of his back catalog, Jones’ aesthetics are almost as hyper-fixated as the subject matter. As Muslimgauze, Jones’ music is almost exclusively rhythmic, with Middle Eastern breakbeats almost entirely devoid of melody, which is then treated with a battery of dub tools and techniques and run through an extensive, eclectic toolkit of effects and electronic processing. These breaks are often layered with field recordings and snippets of Arabic spoken word and text, giving many of Muslimgauze’s albums a vaguely ethnographic feel, further augmented by Jones’ industrial-style cut-and-paste visual aesthetics.

It makes for dense listening, creating a black hole to fall into and get lost. Spend some time working your way through Muslimgauze’s tangles and gnarls, though, and you’ll notice quite a bit of variation among the hundreds of releases. You could never accuse Bryn Jones of being a one-trick pony, even though his music is almost immediately identifiable once you learn to recognize it. 

With that in mind, on the anniversary of Jones’ death, we’ll consider his first five releases as both an introduction and a critical re-assessment. The first two EPs and three full-lengths from 1983 and 1984 aren’t the best Muslimgauze offerings, but they are fascinating documents, nonetheless. They’re some of the most interesting, fully-realized artifacts to crawl out of the early 1980s industrial drainpipe. They also reveal an endless hunger for innovation and experimentation as well as serving as a fascinating missing link between Jones’ earliest work as E. G. Oblique Graph and the later militant Middle Eastern breakbeats that would preoccupy Jones for the remainder of his too-short life.

Muslimgauze – Hammer & Sickle EP (1983)

Muslimgauze’s first EP has more in common with his signature sound and style than the first LPs. On this short experimental EP, Jones utilizes lo-fi drum machines to carve out Middle Eastern polyrhythms – and little else – which are then dropped down a stairwell of reverb, echo, and delay. 

The Hammer & Sickle EP feels funkier, more syncopated, and more spacious than the first albums, which owe much more of a debt to the EBM electronic music dribbling out of the underground like crude oil at that time. It also illustrates Muslimgauze’s penchant for live percussion, as “Beize Tents” sounds like Einstürzende Neubauten jamming with an oud ensemble. 

These live elements give an organic, unpredictable quality that makes Muslimgauze albums riveting, even with their occasional homogeneity. Features come and go, swim into focus, and deteriorate like thermal paper beneath a desert sun, dropping in and out like memories of dreams upon waking. It reminds you of the human at the helm, even if machines surround him. Jones brings an organic dub approach to industrial music and experimental electronics that more producers would do well to remember and emulate.

Muslimgauze – Kabul (1983)

Kabul finds Muslimgauze in its embryonic state, tweaking and experimenting with drum machines and experimental recording techniques to create gauzy, exotic, ethereal sound worlds. Disembodied vocal samples, drowning in echo and reverb, meet cheap battery-powered synths, like the dream of a Middle Eastern bazaar. The third track, “Muslin Gauze Muslim Prayer”, is the origin of the Muslimgauze moniker, incidentally. 

Kabul has the head-nodding, hypnotic, meditative quality of constantly-shifting beats, like listening to a Turkish wedding band playing late into the night, lit only by the mesmerizing light of a bed of embers. It’s more music for falling into than active listening, per se. You’ll have the best time listening if you let it sink into your bones and do what it does.

It’s worth noting that Bryn Jones pressed and released Kabul on vinyl himself, accompanied by a zine called Facsimile featuring his collage artwork and textual cut-ups. This was in the height of the DIY, the pick-up-a-gluestick-and-get-‘er-done era of underground music in the wake of Spiral Scratch, but it’s a sign of Jones’ belief and commitment to his work right from the get-go and an indication that he had a lot to say – and would go to any lengths to say it.

Muslimgauze – Opaques (1983)

In some ways, Muslimgauze’s second full-length LP from 1983 feels more in line with the rest of his extensive catalog, especially its fondness for vocal samples, than Hammer & Sickle. In others, though, it owes much more to Jones’ earlier work as E.G. Oblique Graph. The beats, in particular, feel much more linear and vaguely conventional, more along the lines of an electronic new wave/coldwave band, albeit a particularly stark and skeletal one.

The five-note keyboard melody of the album opener and early career highlight, “Milena Jesenska”, feels downright decadent compared to much of Muslimgauze’s extreme austerity. While it also introduces Jones’ fondness for spectral vocal samples, they feel much less specific than his later work, sounding more like your standard choral samples drowned in a half-ton of reverb than the context-heavy ethnographic field recordings and media sampling that defines so much of the Muslimgauze sound.

This leaves Opaques sounding more like an interesting, exploratory synthesis of lo-fi electronics and European romanticism, like Max Richter or Murcof jamming with Cabaret Voltaire

Opaques is a masterclass in electronic minimalism. It makes the Young Marble Giants sound busy, cluttered, and hyperactive in comparison. It’s also a gold standard of making do with limited means. Scrape away the thick shellac of reverb and echo, and these sounds could’ve come from a Service Merchandise Casio circa 1983.

The archaic instrumentation, unconventional song structures, and an almost complete void of melody or harmony mean Opaques will still mostly appeal to Muslimgauze completists, industrial/DIY die-hards, and electronic music historians.

Muslimgauze – Hunting Out with an Aerial Eye (1984)

By his fourth release and the first for 1984, Jones seems to be finding a groove in terms of style and sound. First and foremost, the Middle Eastern sound has fully crystallized by Muslimgauze’s fifth release.”Empty Quarter”, in particular, sounds like a fantasia of leading a caravan of camels through a desert, with its ney samples and finger cymbals. It also feels like the most fully-fledged Muslimgauze beat comes to fruition, with its scattershot hand percussion and cataclysm of cymbals, gongs, and chimes. Despite what the first four Muslimgauze releases would have you think, the majority of Muslimgauze’s vast discography has more of this hand-played, organic quality than the drum machine experimentation he was working with in 1983 and 1984.

“Under the Hand of Jaruzelski” is an early instance of the blown-out, noisy, almost indecipherable vocal samples heard often on Muslimgauze albums. With “Under The Hand of Jaruzelski”, they’re riding on a sea of sub-Ministry boom-bap beats that are far more rudimentary than Jones usually comes up with.

Hunting Out With an Aerial Eye also introduces a few of Muslimgauze’s tricks. Both “Under the Hand of Jaruzelski” and “Ensan Entehari” have beats and samples cresting over a bedrock of sickly, disoriented synth pads that remind us why Jones is as revered in dark ambient circles almost as much as industrial or electronic music scenes. They explain why Muslimgauze is such a titanic influence on modern experimental electronic acts like Vatican Shadow. 

Even almost 25 years after his death and 40 years after Hunting Out With an Aerial Eye‘s release, few have come close to matching, let alone surpassing, the formula.

Muslimgauze –  Buddhist on Fire (1984)

One doesn’t release nearly 400 albums and expect them all to be stone-cold classics. Buddhist on Fire, Muslimgauze’s third full-length LP and third in two years, is more of a product of its time than the first two LPs. With its glassy synth pads and spiky bass, glistening bass, it feels like a mid-1980s art-rock band jamming with a prog metal outfit, like Oingo Boingo getting together with Zeni Gava in David Byrne‘s studio with big shoulder pads and plenty of blow. Other moments sound like New Age music of the period, like “Priest” with its glassy digital pianos and early Catholic plainsong giving the feeling of Windham Hill meets Enigma’s MCMXC by way of Tarkovsky.

Many of Muslimgauze’s signature moves come into focus for the first time on Buddhist on Fire, however, most notably the Arabic locked grooves of “Turkish Falaka”. “Reuters” is delightfully noisy, as well. Its whirling white noise and brutalist vocal sampling feel like the first moment on the record where the Muslimgauze of Gun Aramaic or Coup d’etat comes into focus.

Buddhist on Fire is an uneven record, but it’s not without its charms. It’s more of a curiosity, but it’s still worth hearing as an example of Muslimgauze’s evolution and mid-1980s esoterica.