Sunday July 21st, 2024
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Shah twists folkloric sounds on new EP ‘Jack in the Box’

Taking in Shah’s twisted treatment of traditional middle eastern folk music in a bustling synthwave guise.

Moataz Gwaily

Shah twists folkloric sounds on new EP ‘Jack in the Box’

From the very first moments of this EP it was apparent that Shah’s vision was not going to make for a familiar, soothing listen, not in anyway a maker of conventional music, but the extent of the workings would not make itself fully clear to me until perhaps halfway into the first track, aptly titled ‘Hi’.

Based in Cairo, Shah’s sound would be very hard to locate, geographically. Jumping from the bounds of the sounds of the Maghreb, to those of the Levant, to ultra-traditional Khaleeji Dabkas, to Cairene Mawwals from one cut to the next, the man is an absolute chameleon whose style could be described with something along the lines of “Pan-Arabic, heightened, synth folk”.

Starting with the intimidating, bustling vibes of the introductory cut ‘Hi’, featuring a beehive of bustling synth leads. The track incorporates what sounds something like traditional Levantine folk vocalizing on top of its one-chord, battering drone. The beats are busy and the claps are sure to get some bodies moving on the dance floor. Oh and what a dance floor that would be. What Shah manages to consistently deliver which each cut on the EP is terrific grooves for very fresh takes on very traditional dances from across the region. ‘The Dear Gathering’ is the album’s no.1 showstopper. With its looming, processed bass figure and inventive sampling of some very familiar-sounding folk melodies, the piece brings vibes that are quite electrifying, and given its relative short length, it’s the cut that left us most hungry for more. Shah knows that he’s struck some gold with that qanoun sample, and his use of it so tastefully is a showcase of an artist who knows how to whet appetites.

‘Dizzy’ follows and what it offers is a hefty treatment of sampled beats, sub bass, snaky synth leads, and intoxicating energy. Considering it an (almost) improv showcase for the drums and lead wouldn’t be so far from the truth. With the absence of any discernible structure, the hectic energy is brought up a notch with ‘Dizzy’ and its lines that never settle. The 2 following cuts sadly don’t leave any particular lasting impressions. ‘Stamps’ brings a psychedelic shaabi air to the track list with its boomy, full-sounding beats, and hazy, mysterious leads. There’s nothing wrong with ‘Stamps’ or the following cut ‘The Rush of Beasts’, with its racing synth leads, it is just a matter of Shah simply running out of novel ideas to present, or maybe novel ways of presenting the novel ideas, and maybe me not noticing that ‘Stamps’ has ended and that I was listening to the following cut is enough proof of how much those two tracks sound similar, and how little they present in terms of really attractive hooks or sounds. But more likely it is a case of starting the EP with a trio of immediate, tough-to-follow bangers.

Our least favorite on the EP is sadly the final, and title track ‘Jack in the Box’, which is a shame because while this piece has the neat idea of introducing synth ‘mazameer’ and hectic, shaabi beats from the 80s, it offers not nearly enough ideas to justify its 4 and a half minutes runtime, which might be reasonable, even short, for different styles of music, but for experimental, instrumental synth folk, its a bit of a stretch that proved testing.

There can be no denying that Shah has massive potential to seriously revolutionize some clubs in the region, which might be willing to switch from their usual serving of techno and trap to incorporate some of his juicy synth folk, and with ‘Jack in the Box’ he  is giving us the blueprint for this revolution. The 6 pieces on this EP are terrific, and while in this album format, and this particular order, some pacing issues got introduced, the 6 pieces make amazing listens on their own, with each featuring stunning production value.