It feels important to note, approaching the new Ash Koosha album I AKA I, that Ashkan Kooshanejad grew up listening to a lot of radically diverse music without being aware of how any of it was classified. “You’d listen to a lot of stuff without knowing what was behind it [growing up in Iran],” Kooshanejad explained to Pitchfork earlier this year, “so it was all aesthetics like musicality. I was just interested in sound and different forms of music.”
Alien to conventions of classification and context, Ash Koosha brings an outsider’s touch to Western electronic music; in exile in London from Iran, Kooshanejad comes from a classical/ funk rock/ punk background, has synaesthesia (and so sees sound in colours), and sees his music being used as being part of a grander sensual experience, being incorporated as part of a ‘virtual reality’ album to be brought out on the app Oculus Rift later this year.
The sound of I AKA I is the sound of somebody foreign to the medium appreciating electronica in as close to a pure aesthetic sense, at a computer with the toolkit to make a dance record, approximating melodies and rhythms, trying to follow the steps but always spectacularly ending one step out. The closest point of reference may be Arca, or perhaps Actress or Oneohtrix Point Never, but the connection’s not necessarily foremost that of genre, but more so of an attitude, in an appreciation of texture and shape, melodies that don’t come into focus, sounds that don’t have a clear precedent.
But what may differentiate Ash Koosha the most clearly from these, and what is more clearly perfected on I AKA I following from last year’s Guud, is his particular structures within tracks, the way in which motifs return in clear sections to help define and give meaning to his unfamiliar sounds. There are ‘hooks’ and interludes, A and B sections, and lines of sound that take the place of conventional melody lines, even in the juddering, stuttering, difficult motif of In Line, or the manically arrythmical Fool Moon. Vocals are so rare they often serve more as a semi-percussive feature in Ote, In Line and Ooh Uhh, and drums are often eschewed for swells in texture.
The record at times feels decidedly minimalist in its approach, while simultaneously being full, overbrimming even, with sounds and effects. Too Many is swimming with information, with sudden beeps, glitches and bits of static, while underneath this is a simple, repeating, Philip Glass-style motif. Closer Needs has something inscrutable about it, managing to sound majestic and final while being thin and ambient, with trebly ‘melody’ lines that refuse to fit to a beat. Outside of the ornamentation, the interjections of stuttered drum patterns and clicks, it feels like there’s barely anything to Needs before it’s ended with a truly unclimactic fade out – but yet it closes the album powerfully, emphatically, cinematically.
It’s tempting to be drawn to the few conventional Eastern sounds Kooshanejad offers us – the strings on Mudafossil, the drums on Shah – and to try and tie I AKA I to Kooshanejad’s origins in Persian classical music studying at the Tehran Conservatoire. But Kooshanejad has largely foregone these sonic ties, and the aural signifiers on I AKA I are less clear, defined more by shapes than sounds. When the music resembles traditional tonality, it’s drawn towards the epic, gloomy, and minor-key, like dystopian video game music. When tracks sound like something, it’s through the lens of technology: for its first minute, Snow sounds like a hypothetical sound effect named ‘snow’ for an alarm on an old mobile phone, with all the concomitant crackles and bends of tuning. But these palpable points emerge out of the dark, and what’s left is something truly fresh, barely recognisable, a shuddering, bending feast of sound.