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Three Songs No Flash

Maximum Strength: E.E.K. Featuring Islam Chipsy Live In London
John Doran , October 13th, 2014 07:47

If you want to hear really exciting innovation in music you have to be willing to look beyond America and Europe, says John Doran after watching the Cairene trio tear the Boston Arms to shreds. Live pictures courtesy of Kimberly Powenski

In the prematurely wintry gloom of Tufnell Park I run into a couple I know outside of the Boston Arms, the venerable North London music hall (they play music there - it looks like a village hall). They’re going to see The Enid in another of the three venues crammed into the pub’s giant, wedge-like building - which must, from the vantage point of a police helicopter, look like an arrow pointing at the tube station. It seems most of the people milling about outside are going to see the careworn Albion progressive band who show no sign of slowing down despite their only original member recently being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease… and good luck to them of course. Also not making up the audience for Islam Chipsy’s debut gig in London on Saturday night were half of my Facebook friends who had, instead, it seems, chosen to go and see Underworld run through 21-year-old progressive techno LP Dubnobasswithmyheadman at an all seated venue. And that’s before we get to the tractorbeam-like pull of Marti Pellow appearing in Evita at the Dominion, Miranda Hart’s What I Call Live Show at Wembley Arena and Sunny Afternoon the Ray Davies musical at the Harold Pinter Theatre. And then of course Armageddon was on TV and… seriously - I know it’s bad form of me to ask - but where the Hell were you?

Tonight's DJ is Mark Gergis of Sublime Frequencies who is playing a bewitching brew of mainly Levantine music - Syrian dabke, Algerian rai and Egyptian chaabi, all of which has that edge, a bit of extra accidental distortion, a heavier backbeat than you’d expect or a touch more phase than perhaps most people at the time of recording thought strictly necessary. He hasn't been in this room since Friday May 29, 2009 when Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh played a stunning gig here. Gergis was the Syrian wedding singer's label boss back then, responsible for releasing compilations culled from his bewilderingly large cassettography via Sub Freq and his own Sham Palace label.

On that night the room was packed full of an odd mix of people. There were young, fashionable and open-eared punters (or hipsters if it makes you feel slightly less old and bad about yourself), a serious contingent of serious music fans - Souleyman had been previously been interviewed in The Wire and was already becoming a talking point among devotees of outlier international culture - not to mention local Anglo Arab heads. (In retrospect, doubtless none of these groups were really that clearly defined - the walls between them being porous to a certain degree - but it certainly wasn't the garage rock Dirty Water crowd for example.) The support band were a joy to watch and there was something great about seeing Doueh in all of his West Saharan finery shredding on a Strat played behind his head. But Souleyman was something else entirely. His band could hardly believe how nuts the crowd were going to the frantic wedding dabke played by Rizan Sa’id on keyboards and Hamid Souleyman on electric bozouk and saz. It was clear from the first mijwiz riff, transposed to acidic sounding keyboards, complete with hectic electronic percussion fills, how analogous this music was to rave; how it seemed to fit into the same ritualistic role when transposed and transplanted into a European setting. The gig was a game changer: arguably the moment that things blew up for the stately looking Arabic singer, implacable behind mirror shades.

(When I say a game changer - I mean for me as well. It’s not like I didn’t like North African and Middle Eastern music before this point - I was simply ignorant of it. The revelation of dabke, and later electro chaabi, came at the same time as the idea of the death of innovation in music was starting to take hold in the UK. It seemed to be a fatal flaw in the argument, that it was only really looking at American, European and (to a certain degree) Jamaican music. It wouldn’t be an over-exaggeration to say that gig ended up changing the way I think about music entirely.)

I mention Omar Souleyman for a very specific reason. It's not crass to point out that there are certain similarities between Islam Chipsy and Omar Souleyman - and specifically how the context of a UK show changes the effects of their music. Hicham Chadly who put out the excellent lo fi live recording of the young Egyptian keyboard player and his two drummers on his own Nashazphone imprint (E.E.K. Featuring Islam Chipsy Live At The Cario High Cinema Institute) also works occasionally for Sublime Frequencies. Gergis was one of the people who worked on the release, mastering it for vinyl. Both men grew up occupying the dual headspace of listening to traditional Middle Eastern music as well as much heavier Western sounds (one of Nashazphone's recent releases was a Sunroof! reissue and Gergis was a US punk rock/DIY fan involved in the underground tape trading scene) and this duality is an aesthetic clearly at play in what they do today. Certainly those who have heard the live LP will have probably noticed that the recording is so raw and lo-fi that it is more comparable to something like Mainliner’s Mellow Out or Pussy Galore’s Exile On Main Street than anything most of us would recognise as wedding music. So while you're never going to find us saying anything like, ‘Hey you guys! Here's this year's Omar Souleyman!’ there are similar conceptual ideas at play in the way they’re presented.

The venue never really fills that much beyond 55% but everyone in attendance - mainly young fans of Upset The Rhythm' excellent programming skills - is bang up for it. The first thing that hits you - literally - is the sound, like rounds from a riot cop’s baton gun. Earlier in the day I’d talked to a few people about the gig and everyone kept on talking about the soundcheck with a slightly far away look on their faces. It’s clear why. The live set up - Chipsy on keys, flanked by Khaled Mando and Islam Tata on drums - produces a sound which is crisp and dynamic while brutally loud, only just stopping short of being painful to listen to. Trying to hold conversations later after the set is a fool’s errand.

It’s only really in the live arena you fully understand why it’s E.E.K. and not Islam Chipsy solo - the rhythms are terrifyingly syncopated and tight, both drummers responding instantaneously to the keyboard player’s frequent and unannounced modulations in style and tempo. The taut tom fills have the same impact as the insanely over compressed drum tracks of Cut Hands. There is literally no looseness to this at all but when they lock into heavy, hyperspeed tom fills you can feel yourself being physically punched at chest height away from the stage. Mando and Tata are as much worthy of the virtuoso tag as Chipsy.

The first track is a 20 minute workout of E.E.K.'s signature tune... the unnamed song that makes up all of the live LP. Chipsy attacks his keyboard with abandon... karate chopping, slapping and punching out tight organ blares in time with the rapid fire bass drum blasts. But you have to keep on reminding yourself that this isn’t a random assault on an instrument. His hands maybe blurring, they’re moving so fast but he is deploying very precise tonal clusters that pulse out as a basslines and rhythmical stabs. His hands move so fast, it’s often very hard to work out exactly what he’s doing. At one point his right hand is a mist of motion blur creating a Hank Shocklee strength circular sax squeal loop while his left plays sombre Joy Division chords in eighth time.

If there are notional similarities, tonight reveals that in practice there are many extremely clear distinctions - above and beyond the obvious - between Souleyman and Chipsy as well. E.E.K. don’t really make for a rave substitute in its dynamic, rather it's like ultra-fast carnival music with elements that are closer parallels to calypso, soca, new orleans second line drumming and dancehall except played at the speed of Morbid Angel with the intensity of Dillinger Escape Plan. (As Joost Heijthuijsen pointed out memorably on this site, E.E.K. sound like a marching band on amphetamines.) But this is no surprise as the music is engineered to work outdoors in big celebratory crowds, it’s maximal assault is custom built to get big street parties kicking, so indoors, through a fierce PA, the intensity is near overpowering.

By the end of the set the audience are in full-on ecstatic fervour mode, going for it like they’re at the Twisted Wheel in 1970. It all proves too much for one be-baseball-hatted young man who sprints on stage to leap onto a podium behind Chipsy to execute very rapid and personalised interpretive dancing behind him only to sprint off again when he realises venue staff are coming for him.

The real change in styles happens during the encore which sees E.E.K. deploy an organic take on Oriental trap based on the traditional Arabic maqam but pitch bent to hell and back. The speed and intensity increases bit by tension ratcheting bit while the only constant is the bass drone which sounds like an air raid siren or at least a squad of bagpipers mimicking an air raid siren.

By all accounts EEK's debut studio album is in the can and sounding amazing. On the strength of tonight's show it's hard to imagine it being anything else. And next time they’re over, drop what it is you’re doing and go and see them - whatever else you have on that night will wait, trust me.