Tuesday 22 January 2019

Ahl Sina - Troops of Pain (2019)

Country: Egypt
Style: Experimental Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Jan 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

If you've been following my reviews thus far, you'll have noticed that I like my metal interesting. Don't sound like the other guys and I'm going to pay attention. Blur the boundaries between subgenres and you've got my interest. Bring in far flung ethnic sounds and I'm going to be eager to listen. Well, here's a folk/progessive metal band from Egypt who kick off their album with a ten minute song. This is so far up my alley I can feel it tickling my taste buds.

And it does indeed turn out to be an interesting album. After listening through a few times in entirety, what it really sounds like to me is a prog metal opera that at times gets very folky, as classical music often tends to do.

That ten minute opener, The Gift, begins with chanting then shifts to flute and percussion, diverts into electronic territory and then an intricate guitar intro. When the singing shows up, it's clean vocals over flute, then violin. The melodies quaver and the flutes trill. Only when an electric guitar solo suddenly arrives almost four minutes in does this really assert itself as metal but, a minute further in, we suddenly find ourselves in flight with death metal growls that are later replaced by shrieks halfway between black metal and Bobby Blitzer of Overkill. Even then the ethnic instruments keep on accompanying, even leading and, on occasion, running entirely solo. By eight minutes, we find a spoken word section, marking the fifth vocal style used in one song. And, if I'm not mistaken, all of them except the chanting at the beginning are courtesy of a single man, Moustafa Troll, who founded Ahl Sina in 2009.

So that's ten minutes of an album that runs over an hour, with one track, Enlightenment Discarded that's even longer than The Gift.

There's so much more to say but it would be redundant. Frankly, I could end my review there and you're either going to move right along or raise your eyebrows at the potential.

Well, I should add that I'm still exploring this on my fourth or fifth time through because there's that much going on, both musically and with regard to the storyline.

I'd like to pick up a lyric sheet for this to figure out what's unfolding because it's clearly aimed at being a coherent story and I haven't got a clue what that is, other than something contemporary that speaks to the human condition and its tendency towards conflict. The title track wraps up with a sample from a poem by Jane Elliott called Racism Destroyed in One Minute.

Musically, it's exquisite, all the way up to the tortured shriek halfway through Vowed. It's emphatically an Egyptian band at heart and you'd be forgiven for expecting them to all be Egyptians deeply in touch with the musical heritage of the country. Just listen to the intro to Knowledge and Pain and tell me that that isn't an Egyptian playing frame drums behind an Egyptian string section?

Well, what surprises me most is that Ahl Sina are actually international in scope and this album was recorded in three different nations without a single joint rehearsal of all the members. The strings are courtesy of Stefanie Pfaffenzeller from Germany and the tribal drummer, Shaadie Khoury, is in the US. I presume Amr el Zanaty on the traditional percussion and Ahmed el Eskndarany on flutes are in Egypt, as are Troll on vocals and Shung on keyboards and guitar, but bassist Marcel Hauptmann is also German.

They perform together gloriously, whether they actually perform together or not. This doesn't sound piecemeal at all, even if the international members did record their bits separately and someone glued them together later. I'd very much like to hear this band live, especially supporting Orphaned Land. While one band is Egyptian and the other Israeli, the two would seem to be utterly compatible musically and thematically. I could see the same Lebanese bellydancers performing with both bands.

Now, let me listen through again and see if I can choose some highlights. I'm almost scared to post any because I'm pretty sure that my favourites will be changing every time I listen. It's not remotely as catchy as the Egyptian influenced Sechem album I reviewed recently, Disputes with My Ba, though some of the flute and percussion sections will have you bellydancing in your office chair and scaring whoever's in the next cube, but it's much deeper and more worthy of exploration.

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