Hailing from a nation where pop music production was once a dangerous act, UTN1 have proved themselves to be an excellent boy band in their own right
When writing a review of any artist whose backstory in music is one of oppression, one has to make a decision about how much of this narrative should be included and how relevant it is to their work. No matter which artist would be reviewed from Iraq, as it is a country that has undergone such brutal turmoil in recent decades, it would seem remiss not to discuss the artist in the context of the politics of their homeland. On the other hand whilst Iraq’s modern history obviously has bearings on the artists as individuals, one might question how relevant it is to the music, in this case, considering that by the time UTN1 released their third album they had been living outside Iraq for six years. Furthermore, one might be inclined to be overly complimentary, in what could appear to be a rather patronising manner, about the album purely because of the band’s impressive origin story, rather than evaluating it on its own terms. Both points of view are valid and as such I have decided to try to strike a balance in giving some context about their backstory and how it might affect their album in some ways, whilst at the same time also trying to keep musical analysis separate.
“It carries within it an array of styles that exist within the broader genre of pop, and they tackle each one with a deft hand.”
There are many points of view that exist surrounding Saddam Hussein’s presidency of Iraq, the 2003 invasion and the years of chaos that have followed. However, most can agree that a large portion of the population were fed up with some repressive elements of Hussein’s dictatorship and as such certain members of the population engaged in subversive acts in an attempt to express themselves even if they were putting themselves at great risk. Before the turn of the millennium, Armenian Christians Artein Haroutonian and Shant Garabedian began composing songs on a keyboard that they had to hide in their car. They then put out an advert and were joined by Shia Muslims Akhlad Raof and Nadeem Hamed (who left the band before the release of Tatazakarein). The diversity of the band at a time in which divisions were rising, stoked in part by the Sunni minority that were in charge, is just one of the impressive parts of UTN1's tale.
The band were inspired by Western pop acts such as the Backstreet Boys and although that in some respects went against Hussein’s anti-Western stance, the band, nevertheless, had to compose a song in honour of Hussein's birthday called Man of Glory that would be played on radio more than twice an hour around the time of his celebration. In complete juxtaposition to this is the fact that the band managed to independently record and release an album that sold over 2,000 copies just before the war broke out. The renegades even sung some songs in English on From Now On. UTN1 which stands for Unknown to No One were making themselves known for something which would have been deeply disapproved of by the regime, however, their adoration of Western pop could not be stopped.
Whilst they may have had a love for the sound of the bands from the West, some might claim that it is Western imperialism that has stopped them from playing back in the country where they first begun. The band headed to Jordan in 2004 before then moving along to the UK and then Lebanon. The fact that nearly two decades since their formation, the band were unable to perform back in Baghdad until only 2018 is both a rather solemn detail and a damning indictment on the tremendous failures that have taken place there in recent years. Though the fact they still play their music and are able to do so freely and safely is a positive thing, one cannot imagine the pain of being denied the freedom of not being able to play music securely in their homeland for so long.
Their music has obviously come on leaps and bounds since the release of their first album due to both experience and access to a proper studio. However, it has not just improved by way of comparison from where they began, it is a genuinely accomplished pop record on its own terms. It carries within it an array of styles that exist within the broader genre of pop, and they tackle each one with a deft hand. The opening track Jamila is a soft and beautiful love song which features a rather wonderful Spanish guitar and excellent harmonising, a feature throughout the album. For these reasons this song is probably the most similar in style to my favourite track on the album Sareha, though Sareha includes a beautiful flute solo too. The record includes a selection of fun electronic pop tracks such as Eid Wahda and Al’an Ahebek Akthar which kicks off with a beautiful oud sound. Their capacity for writing a catchy tune doesn’t end on the dance tracks, Loughet El Ein is particularly memorable for example too.
They also produce a series of songs that are within different parts of the rock spectrum. For example, One Last Time is a pop rock banger, though it must be said that I much prefer the club mix of the latter. They even include what can only be described as hard rock-adjacent in the title-track Tatazakarein and even a dramatic ballad in the form of Baddy Oul. Whilst the English language tracks are a bit hit and miss for my taste, with songs such as War a little corny though endearingly reminding me of forgotten early-noughties British pop stars such as Gareth Gates, tracks like Hold On can just about pass as convincing indie rock. Furthermore, a more favourable comparison could be made for While We Can which is the kind of good natured inoffensive pop song that could easily fit into Take That’s back catalogue. That said, I genuinely believe that the tune of their more entertaining Arabic language tracks such as Regea’t could even make it as a hit were a cover to be to done for the English language market. Overall there are enough good songs and plenty ambition for me to label this as a genuinely great album regardless of the band’s fascinating beginnings that, of course within themselves also evoke a sense of respect for the fact that they clearly love the music that they make.