I've reviewed a few albums featuring Waqas Ahmed, a Pakistani guitarist living in Sibiu, Romania, but the earliest of them is a 2020 album called Doomsday Astronaut. Well, that name is back, this time used as Ahmed's brand. I say brand rather than band, because he's the only musician here for the most part, Marius Stremtan providing additional guitar solos on a couple of tracks and Roxana Amarandi a violin solo on Awaken the Pharaoh. Everything else, whether the guitars for which he's rightly known or the bass, keyboards and drum programming, comes courtesy of Ahmed himself.
While my favourite release thus far from Ahmed has been the Alpha Q album from last year, which was a band effort, the Marius Stremtan here presumably being the Marius there, this slots in next to it, above that original Doomsday Astronaut album and its 2021 follow up, A Perpetual Winter. It plays well to me because it finds a consistent sound and then gets imaginative with it. The guitar is a gorgeous sounding force on this album, weaving stories even without the benefit of a voice, each of the five tracks plus intro being firmly instrumental.
One success is that each of those tracks finds its own voice, even though their sound is consistent to those around it. Ahmed's guitar plays in the same tone on Awaken the Pharaoh, for instance, as on Yojimbo Unleashed before it and Groove Monkey after it, but it tells a different story, whether due to the ethnic feel that it generates at points, bolstered by the keyboards and violin, or due to some imaginative sections like the slow one towards the end. Yojimbo Unleashed is simpler, that guitar almost finding a bagpipe's drone at points as it takes its time playing fewer notes to move onward, and Groove Monkey brings a real attitude with it, as the most overt "look at me" track here.
Another success is that, even though all of these tracks use the same ingredients but conjure up an entirely new dish, it's tough to pick a favourite among them. I like all three of those tracks but for a set of different reasons. Yojimbo Unleashed is the most straightforward of them, but it boasts the most elegant sweep over a consistent drive, as if that piper was standing on top of a steam train as it powered through the countryside, the notes holding in its wake. As it's about the samurai of the title, he'll need extra hands to wield that and play the pipes, but he seems very capable.
Awaken the Pharaoh takes us to somewhere exotic and introduces us to smaller stories as it shows us around. It's more of a suite than a single piece and it takes us on a real journey. The idea is that a pharaoh has been brought back to life after five thousand years and the culture shock of what he must be experiencing looking at the change to his kingdom is there in the technology and the clear update to old themes. In a way, it reminded me of Beethoven playing in the mall in modern day San Dimas in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. It's old and new at the same time.
Groove Monkey has a sassy and funky outlook that reminds a lot of Steve Vai. It's a show off piece, but Ahmed has the chops to back up that attention seeking aspect. There are moments across the album when he clearly shreds but mostly he avoids simply hurling out as many notes as is humanly possible in favour of generating textures. Many of those textures are conjured up on guitar, but he uses keyboards to great success too without them ever taking over.
And while those three tracks lent themselves so easily to comparison, sounding consistent but also completely different, there are a couple of others bookending them. The same applies to them but not quite as much.
Born of Smokeless Fire is the longest track on offer at just over seven minutes and it sets the show into motion capably, working best as a summary of what's still to come. There's a slow section five minutes in that hints towards Yojimbo Unleashed and a change right after it that points the way to Awaken the Pharaoh, but, having set those ideas in motion, it's content to move on without doing much to explore them. That's what the later tracks are for and they do it substantially.
Premonition wraps up the album and varies the tone for the first time, a more introspective piece that works as an instrumental to let flow over us but also feels like it ought to work as a dance too. It's all about motion, as so much of Ahmed's music tends to be, but on a far more subtle scale than anything else here. For much of this one, he sounds a lot more like Gary Moore than Steve Vai, for instance, and it's a good way to wrap up an album.
By the way, I say "album" but this clocks in a little short, a minute and a half shy of Reign in Blood's length, which is my baseline for a short album, having famously appeared in full on each side of its cassette release. And that's the most obvious flaw here. Another track to nudge it over the half an hour mark would have avoided that, but, hey, if that's its biggest problem, it's a solid album.