SAUDI ARABIA: Dhil-un Taht Shajarat Al-Zaqum - MSYLMA
Synths, industrial beats, smart production - it's electro, but not as we know it
My first impressions of Saudi Arabia-based electronic music producer MSYLMA’s debut album Dhil-un Taht Shajarat Al-Zaqum were that it is immediately attention-grabbing and arresting, but also deeply unusual, unique, and in some ways hard to listen to. This is not your normal electronic album of crunchy beats, slick synth lines and bass drops. This is more akin to ambient music, where the instruments provide a sonic texture, but equally it is very much not an ambient album. Brian Eno, the great ambient pioneer described it as music you can not focus on and it can still fulfil its purpose. I would wager that, for better or for worse, Dhil-un Taht Shajarat Al-Zaqum cannot be ignored. Little is known about MSYLMA. He has little to no Internet presence, and aside from the fact that he is Saudi, not much else can be verifiably sourced. Fitting for such mystery, the album itself is very mysterious. It sounds like little else I have heard, from both before this process of listening to albums from every country and during it. It almost sounds like an alien recording at points, so far away it is from melodic music. It sounds industrial, heavy, stark, bursting with harsh sounds and pained vocals. There are moments of where the intensity breaks, of course, but overall, the musical atmosphere this album creates is a harsh and unremitting one.
“MYSLMA has done something that sounds unlike anything else I have heard, and when I’m in the right mood for it, it’s a fascinating auditory experience.”
The album has a narrative for those who understand Arabic, and the lyrics that MSYLMA sings are based on pre-Islamic texts, as well as Quranic poetry. Though I do not understand what he is singing about, MSYLMA is a very talented vocalist, and as such, he is able to convey the emotions of what he is singing, and often the lyrics are sung in a melodramatic manner, aiming to convey the deep sadness and melancholy of the words. His impassioned delivery is an entry point to the emotional core of the album for those who don’t speak Arabic, as the solemn intonations of his singing, often emphasised with reverb, make clear the mood of the piece. The other aspect of the album is the electronic instrumentation, which is usually in an unsettling mode, with rhythms that are not melodic, but rather jarring. A good example of this is Li-Kul-i Murad-in Hijaa, a song that starts off with a droning bass note, reverberated vocal lamentations, which is then countered by an erratic drum pattern, which immediately draws one’s attention. Then, in the final third of the song it bursts out into a crash of drums and heavily distorted electric guitar, approaching ambient noise music. It helps MSYLMA create an uneasy atmosphere to accompany his pained vocals. This is an album where anything could happen, and frequently does. I can’t pick out any best songs, or weaker moments because every song is representative of his esotericism. The album even ends on a note of recognition of this, as Iftirad (Zad AlMusafir) is a beautiful acoustic track, performed with only vocals and piano, as if to say here’s some musical lemon sorbet after the clash of musical flavours and textures that have come before. It is a lovely way to end a chaotic and oddly brilliant album.
The album is certainly an oddity. Were it not so competently performed and sung, it could be considered outsider art. MYSLMA is dancing to the beat of his drum and his drum alone. For this, MYSLMA is to be applauded, as his sheer originality of style is a rare thing. On the other hand, this is certainly not an album I can just put on to relax or have fun. It requires effort, and concentration, and all of your attention – even listening to it in the background while writing this was a challenge – and in some ways that’s important for an album to be able to do that, but also it means it has a specific audience that will respond to it, and some will be put off by its idiosyncrasies. That said, I do have a lot of respect for musicians who do their own thing, and damn what anyone else has to say. MYSLMA has done something that sounds unlike anything else I have heard, and when I’m in the right mood for it, it’s a fascinating auditory experience. My appreciation for this album has grown a lot since I have taken this deep dive listen for the review. There’s a spark of madness about MSYLMA that I do respond to, and the way it kept me almost on edge with every track is a real skill, and so, while I cannot recommend this as music to put on if you’re feeling like relaxing – James Taylor is your man for that – but it is interesting music, and if you’re up for an assault on your musical senses, an album that’s as much a challenge as it is enjoyment, Dhil-un Taht Shajarat Al-Zaqum might be what you’re after.