Shalabi Effect, Land of Kush, Dwarfs of East Agouza

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Shalabi Effect (2000), 7/10
The Trial Of St Orange (2002), 7/10
Sam Shalabi: On Hashish (2001), 5/10
Sam Shalabi: Osama (2003), 5/10
Pink Abyss (2004), 5/10
Eid (2008), 6/10
Land of Kush: Against the Day (2009), 6/10
Land of Kush: Monogamy (2010), 7/10
Feign to Delight Gaiety of Gods (2012), 6/10
Land of Kush: The Big Mango (2013), 5/10
Sam Shalabi: Music for Arabs (2014), 5/10
Land of Kush: Sand Enigma (2019), 6/10
Dwarfs of East Agouza: Bes (2016), 6/10
Dwarfs of East Agouza: Rats Don't Eat Synthesizers (2018), 6.5/10
Dwarfs of East Agouza: The Green Dogs of Dahshur (2020), 6/10
Dwarfs of East Agouza: High Tide in the Lowlands (2023), 6.5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Montreal-based guitarist Sam Shalabi led the Shalabi Effect, a post-rock project that deals with improvised instrumental psychedelic music, but not only the droning kind.

On the sprawling double album Shalabi Effect (Alien 8, 2000), originally slated for release as a collaboration album with Godspeed You Black Emperor that was supposed to be entitled Aural Florida, they employ vintage electronics, ethnic percussions, manipulated instruments, and found sounds to produce propulsive and trancey scores. The line-up is a veritable orchestra of ethnic, western and electronic instruments.

The Trial Of St. Orange (Alien 8, 2002) is less ambitious but also more focused. The humble overture of Sundog Ash misleads the listener with a contemplative atmosphere of solo guitar and jungle sounds. St Orange is an exercise in nightmarish electronica that decays into chaotic Morton Subotnick-ian beats. Mr Titz picks up from that rhythmic bedrock to build pure percussive ecstasy (that halfway into the piece shifts gear to resemble a warped drum'n'bass shuffle). One Last Glare mixes Indian instruments, demented electronics and harsh dissonance. The 17-minute monolith A Glow in the Dark is an extravaganza of abstract electronica with innuendoes to sounds of the jungle that after 13 minutes picks up pace and structure launching in a bewildering jam a` la Amon Duul II.

Sam Shalabi's solo work is more politically motivated. On Hashish (Alien8, nov 2001), mainly centered around the 26-minute Outside Chance, blends field recordings, free improvisation, droning and glitches. Osama (Alien8, 2003) is a pretentious exercise in folkish-jazzy-exotic progressive-rock, with at least one new classic: Wherewithhall (17 minutes).

The Shalabi Effects' third album, Pink Abyss (Alien8, 2004), is mostly bland and undistinguished. It contains one trip-hop gem, Bright Guilty World (vocals by Elizabeth Anka Vajagic), one truly atmospheric ballad, Blue Sunshine (Charles Spearin on trumpet); and two decent pieces of intellectual muzak, I Believe in Love and Kinder Surprise. But the rest is simply second-rate imitation of Shalabi Effects.

Unfortunately (2005) documents live performances.

The Sam Shalabi "solo" album Eid (Alien8, 2008) blends Arab folk and avantgarde music. In some cases Shalabi simply states the obvious (Billy The Kid, in two parts), but elsewhere he indulges in chameleon-like structures such as the seven-minute Jessica Simpson that span several different styles in just one piece. The nine-minute Eid, the seven-minute Eddie and the ten-minute Honey Limbo are musical fantasies that know no borders.

Shalabi then formed Land of Kush to record an odd tribute to Egypt's orchestral pop of the 1960s, Against the Day (2009), performed by dozens of Montreal musicians on both traditional instruments (violin, contrabass, cello, flute, viola, clarinet, saxophones and guitar) and electronic ones (Xarah Dion, Nadia Moss and Alexandre St-Onge) plus several vocalists (Molly Sweeney, Marie Davidson, Katie Moore, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, Elizabeth Anka Vajagic). After the abstract overture The Light Over The Ranges, mostly for electronics and wordless vocals, the 14-minute Iceland Spur opens with seven minutes of conventional Arabic litany that slowly degrades into a sax-driven free-jazz jam over Middle-Eastern percussion with a coda centered upon an evocative guitar melody. The 21-minute Bilocations starts out with a vibrant and almost operatic song over a brutally syncopated rhythm, and after nine minutes begins to disintegrate into a nebula of dissonant electroacoustic music. Against The Day is even more schizophrenic, opening in frenzied punk-jazz mode and turning to a solemn hymn for droning choir and galopping percussion. The album closes with another abstract composition, halfway between chamber music and musique concrete, Rue du Depart.

Renamed Land of Kush's Egyptian Light Orchestra, the project continued on Monogamy (2010), which added more elements to their fusion of post-rock, jazz and Middle-eastern pop. The 17-minute Scars is even built around a catchy singalong that could be from a German expressionist cabaret of the 1920s as filtered through Jim Steinman. After five minutes the singer (Elizabeth Anka Vajagic) stops but the orchestra keeps repeating the melody with minimal variations. Another voice recites a poem over what has become a jazzy bacchanal. And after eleven minutes the music restarts with the original different song in a sad and slow version, leading to the mourning cello coda. The nine-minute Tunnel Visions balances sideral synth noises and Katie Moore's angelic and poignant ode over a driving rhythm (plus a two-minute coda of sax-heavy jamming). Molly Sweeney intones a majestic melody that could be from a Broadway show-tune in the ten-minute Monogamy (one of his all-time zeniths) but after three minutes her singing becomes a ghostly howl fighting with electronic noises while an unrelenting drumbeat evokes shamanic and psychedelic rituals. These three lengthy songs display Shalabi's skills as a composer of melodies, and their extended structure also well represent Shalabi's post-Brechtian musical theater. Only Fisherman disappoints: for ten minutes it is little more than poetry with a light musical accompaniment.

Shalabi Effect's last album, the (mostly) instrumental double-disc Feign to Delight Gaiety of Gods (Annihaya, 2012), contains almost two hours of music. Clearly the deep electronic sound of Shalabi Effect contrasts with the mostly acoustic sound of Land of Kush. Four members of the quintet (Alexandre St-Onge, guitarist Anthony Von Seck, percussionist Will Eizlini and Shalabi himself) alternate at various electronic keyboards, and the fifth one is the drummer (John Heward). There is certainly a lot of filler between the free-form chamber electronica of Prenatal Coat Hanger Memory and the electroacoustic fragmentation of Ambien Walrus, between the savage dissonance of Skulls for Stars and the funereal Arabic litany Beauty Queen Crime Scene, between the anemic slow-motion minimalism of Empathy Box, and the vertigo-inducing dance peirced by Jason Sharp's saxophone Cum Duster. But there is also the 30-minute White Phosphorus Christmas, a wildly heterogeneous multi-part suite that sheds its skin countless times: a hazy, ghostly psychedelic soundscape; Middle-eastern percussion; a trombone-like saxophone; psychedelic distortion; a gentle chaos of distorted samples of voices and electronic sounds; aquatic noise; ghostly vocal drones emerging from frantic percussion; and finally an exuberant jam of jazzy Arabic music. The 17-minute Love Hertz is a slightly more concise collage of bubbling electronica, free-jazz jamming, psychedelic reverbs and abstract dissonance. The nine-minute A Fine State of a Fez is the "ethnic" piece de resistance, a whirling dance for tabla and stringed instruments.

Land Of Kush's The Big Mango (2013) is ostensibly a tribute to Cairo, influenced by the events of the "Arab Spring" (Shalabi was in Cairo during the 2011 protests that caused the downfall of the Mubarak dictatorship). This stripped-down version of the Land of Kush employs smaller combos rather than the big bands of the first two Land of Kush albums. Most ideas are not fully developed: the atmospheric vignette Faint Praise, the piano sonata followed by a sax solo Second Skin and the feverish Brazilian jazz of St Stefano seem to be barely sketched and then unceremoniously dropped. The Big Mango is positively confused. In the end one is left with the prog-rock suite The Pit and the best song, Mobil Nil. This could be Shalabi's least cohesive and original work.

Sam Shalabi's solo album Music for Arabs (2014), recorded in Cairo, is an album of collages that border on musique concrete. Unfortunately they are so unstable to resemble a random selection of found sounds. Such is the case of the 22-minute Music for Egyptians (in two parts). The most organic piece is the most ethnic one, The Enemy Of My Enemy, Shalabi's take on Arabic dance. The Wherewithal has a great beat but doesn't do much with it (or over it) during its nine minutes.

Land of Kush's 77-minute Sand Enigma (2019) returned to the big-band format (Amir Amiri on santur, Dina Cindric on piano, David Gossage on flutes GeneviŠve Heistek on viola, Adam Kinner on tenor saxophone Elizabeth Lima on clarinet, Maurice Louca on keyboards, Vicky Mettler on guitar Mark Molnar on cello Sarah Pag‚ on harp, Anthony Von Seck on setar, Jason Sharp on baritone saxophone, Alexandre St-Onge on electronics, Devin Brahja Waldman on alto saxophone, Joshua Zubot on violin, etc). Several songs are confused and unstable (starting with opener Aha and including Sand Enigma, that begins like a cute ragtime but implodes in multiple directions), but others are marvels of "incoherent cohesion". The Caribbean-sounding Domyat 1331 begins with clarinet melodic fragments that are repeated and eventually intertwined with sax, flute and wordless vocals, a counterpoint that turns into a demonic bacchanal. Safe Space is a polyrhythmic prog-rock ditty fronted by Japanese shouter Maya Kuroki and the result recalls the prog-rock lieder of the Art Bears. Harp and flute complement Nadah El Shazly's vocals as she glides gently over the galopping dance Trema Some compositions are simply trivial, like the ten-minute instrumental Broken Maqams which is a rather uneventful Arabic dance, or Recuerdo, in which Katie Moore intones a folkish melody over a harmonium drone. The album ends with a seven-minute duet of saxophones, Tensor.

In 2012 Sam Shalabi formed the Dwarfs of East Agouza with Egyptian keyboardist Maurice Louca (of Alif, Bikya and Karkhana) and bassist and saxophonist Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls and Alvarius B) when they happened to share an apartment in Cairo’s Agouza district. Their double-disc Bes (Nawa, 2016), recorded in Cairo in April 2014, is an instance of instrumental multinational music. The highlight of the first disc is Baka of the Future (09:38), a hypnotic Arab-psychedelic jam with atonal guitar over a thick percussive carpet. The spartan Clean Shahin (06:58) sounds like Arto Lindsay duetting with an Arab percussionist. The polyrhythmic beat is even more intense on Where’s Turbo? (16:10) and the guitar hiccups out of tune, desperately trying to match the fervor, but the manic energy is rudely drained away after nine minutes by sloppy electronics. The second disc is devoted to the 35-minute improvisation Museum of Stranglers. The first part is a much calmer piece where the trio's interplay creates an atmosphere of quasi-religious suspense, which eventually disintegrates into abstract free jazz. The second part is 13 minutes of anemic sounds, probably their attempt at cosmic music. The third part is eight minutes of dissonant Arabic folk-rock. The whole piece is clearly improvised with no editing/cuts and therefore suffers from redundancy and drops of momentum.

The Dwarfs improvised in a single, four-hour Cairo session of september 2015 the two lengthy pieces of Rats Don't Eat Synthesizers (Akuphone, 2018): the chaotic and propulsive Rats Don't Eat Synthesizers (12:24), with virulent guitar and organ solos, and Ringa Mask Koshary (23:11), in which the saxophone leads a frenzied cacophonous dance (possibly their best jam yet).

Electric Smog (2019), a split album with Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt, contains the Dwarfs' 23-minute Abu Nour.

The Dwarfs The Green Dogs of Dahshur (Akuphone, 2020), mostly recorded in Cairo in November 2016, offers four more jams. A saxophone solo triggers the exuberant collective cacophony of Black Sun of Intent. It contrasts with the languid and sparse 17-minute abstract soundscape of Organism 46-B (recorded in September 2015). The 14-minute Bent Black and Red is an exercise in free-jazz improvisation in which each musician displays his skills while reacting to the "noise" emitted by the others. The trio is tightly-knit and super-charged, but the improvisations tend to last longer than they deserve.

The Dwarfs recorded High Tide in the Lowlands (2023), live in Brussels in September 2017. It features a galopping 21-minute version of their Baka of the Future and the 21-minute The Sprouting of the 7th Entertainment, a demented, heinous blues jam that begins with Alan Bishop rapping over a bacchanal of percussion, somewhere between Captain Beefheart and Taj Mahal, then continues with Bishop's sax colliding with other horns and ends with the usual sparse soundscape except that this time Bishop emits animal verses in it.

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