Tumultuous events in life catalyse the artist in specific and often deeply personal ways. Hemingway’s experiences in World War I inspired the content of A Farewell To Arms. Thom Yorke’s mental alienation due to Radiohead’s rise to super-stardom influenced the claustrophobia and chaos of Kid A. And Bruce Springsteen’s growing depression led to the desolation of Nebraska. Similarly, the forced emigration of Kamal Rasool, the leading talent behind Flamingods, out of the UK due to revised visa laws significantly induced the difficult and bare atmosphere of the band’s second album.
Hyperborea was written much in the way of The Postal Service’s Give Up; the five band members never recorded in the studio together, but instead e-mailed their parts and revisions of each track to each other. The result is a work deeply grounded in Middle Eastern music with elements of freak folk and psychedelia. Tracks contain melodies and rhythms often at odds with each other, such as on Market Dancer and Lake Yaylaru, and contain traditional Middle Eastern instruments with the aesthetic of noise music and the ephemerality of Biosexual’s experimental pop on their self-titled debut. Those tracks with relatively standard structures are long evolving compositions, as seen on mid-album highlight and title track Hyperborea.
Some of these experiments are very successful, notably the opener Vimana. Ethereal vocals drift from the mix much in the way that Dirtmusic uses the Malian voice as another instrument. Immediate follow-up Manyara is a little more unpleasant; Flamingods’ use of repetition is a prime factor in their work, but in this case the constant chanting of Manyara and tinging instruments is too much to swallow, even for a song under two minutes. Market Dancer suffers from a similar lack of direction.
There’s a sense of pain and heartfelt longing that naturally comes with leaving one’s adopted country, but also an acceptance that naturally comes with revisiting one’s homeland and past. Trek Mountainous Heck incorporates field recordings of indigenous languages behind a heavily reverbed chorus of voices that are underpinned by a steady acoustic arpeggio and sparse tribal beat. It is an easy song in which to get lost, and it is also effective at conjuring the Middle East as seen through Rasool’s eyes.
The concept of orientalism, by which Western cultures romanticise or paint pictures of an East by the palette of their beliefs rather than one of reality, is difficult to escape in world and folk music; indeed it is difficult to separate conceptions of culture from actuality, especially in those ways that supremely differ from a home culture, which were early criticisms leveled at Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s collaboration Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics. Hyperborea is a particularly interesting listen because here is a man who has lived in the West and East and who creates a musical synthesis of the two within his album, interpreting the East through Western eyes and interpreting the West through Eastern eyes. Morning Raga and closing track Nibiru unites pitch-shifting, dub and electronic inflections with raga music; and it constructs a remarkable window into Rasool’s experiences in each region of the world.
Rasool has created an album that is by no means boring; in fact, Hyperborea can surely lay claim to being one of the more fascinating releases of 2014 thus far. The album’s challenging nature will make it a difficult listen for some, especially with the avant-garde sound collage natures of the tracks in mind. It does not heavily reward repeated listens due to its repetitive nature, but what it lacks in charm it makes up for in heart. Rasool’s emotions are palpable, and his love and yearning for homes new and old make Hyperborea an earnestly passionate release.