Saint Abdullah Weave Sublime Electronic Music That Transcends the East and West on 'Mechanical Flirtations'
Throughout Mechanical Flirtations, Iranian duo Saint Abdullah deal in weaponized compassion and empathy, tuning their boundless music to start fires. Theirs is a sound of protest and resistance, of warmth and reconciliation.
13 June 2019
"Anger has many colors and tones and moments. It's also not stable, and is bound to transform," Iranian-born, New York-based brothers Moh and Mehdi told me when I interviewed them in 2018. A year later, their anger has inevitably transmuted into new emotions and sonic forms. Today, they and many other Muslims in the West have every reason to feel exasperation, sadness, loneliness, and fear. The Christchurch mosque shootings. Rising right-wing and state-sanctioned extremism in the USA. An ever more xenophobic, forgetful Europe that is starting to drown in fascist rhetoric. Refugees dying on invisible borders made real by barbed wire fences.
Today, the brothers' 2018 Stars Have Eyes album and songs like "hy.poc.risy" sound almost prophetic, just as they did yesterday, and just as they will tomorrow. While the conflict that they explore in their music is constant, seemingly insurmountable, there is nothing divinatory nor defeatist about Saint Abdullah, Moh and Mehdi's main artistic outlet. The project instead relies on a keen sense of observation and understanding. Situated between the East and West, the hypnagogic and the painfully real, it channels a fierce will and power to transform and connect into unclassifiable experimental drones.
On Mechanical Flirtations, their third full-length, Saint Abdullah eclipse the caustic beats of The Sounds of Evil: Volume One and condense the atmospheric found sounds and field recordings of Stars Have Eyes. Their sentiments are now projected through a new perspective, focused and incisive. Here, samples collected from Tehran, documenting the city's mundanity, appear as repurposed fragments, their reverberations tightly woven around firm rhythmic cores and amplified beyond recognition.
Recordings of Shia orations, which were often a cornerstone of their compositions in the past, return on "Landscapes of a Blind Man". The song's tugging rhythm is anchored by handclaps and shrouded within pulses of bass, abrasive noises, and discordant whispers. The hypnotic voice of a riotous orator shifts into cheers of a hypnotized crowd in an interplay of call and response. It's an unexpectedly expansive piece on a record otherwise characterized by weighty terseness and minimalism.
As a counterpoint, "The Birds Discuss the Journey" marches through sharp, wavy textures accompanied by a beat stuck in time. Like history repeating itself. Discordant percussion hits and English free jazz maestro John Butcher's saxophone punch through it all. They sing an esoteric birdsong, mimicking and chirping sounds of Tehran. The aggressive, seething cut is dominated by Butcher's saxophone, a black hole that pulls in and collapses rhythms and metallic noises, disintegrating electronic effects, and samples.
Helped by guest musicians, Saint Abdullah's music has become more and more a thing of its own, not necessarily tethered to the message it carries. Nevertheless, it still deals with both intimate and universal issues—the personal is, after all, political—as it drifts through realities enfleshed into more abstract pieces. A whole world reflected through Mehdi and Moh's eyes.
"Void of Veil and Curtain" and "Bedroom Windows" drone like a mashup of their previous works. Repetitive, grinding, percussive textures of a deconstructed piano punctuate electronically altered, alien-sounding vocals on the former. Bells ring from within a dream as if echoing a blurry recollection of someone else's life on the latter. But it's the closing two tracks that show the real transformation.
Brooklyn saxophonist Travis Laplante joins the brothers on "What a Tale This Is" to create their most to-the-point music to date. Laplante's saxophone spurts melodic, fiery licks amidst a sea of silvery electronic noises and spins the song towards driven free jazz. Finally, on the title track, they are joined by santoor-player Sahba Sizdahkhani—whom they've often cited as a source of inspiration—to create a sorrowful but surprisingly calm and calming ballad. Sparse santoor and piano chords mesh with invocations distorted beyond recognition. A faint rhythm flutters in the background. Is it resignation or renewed hope that we hear? Perhaps something else completely.
Throughout Mechanical Flirtations, Saint Abdullah deal in weaponized compassion and empathy, tuning their boundless music to start fires. Theirs is a sound of protest and resistance, of warmth and reconciliation. Ultimately, Saint Abdullah aren't proselytizing. Moh and Mehdi share projections of their inner worlds, informed by global and local shifts, and turn emotions into musical dialectics. Rather than just directly affecting, Mechanical Flirtations uncovers thoughts and truths that we try to suppress, leaving it to us to act.
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