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1100 dB JR Moores , May 9th, 2022 07:42

Cairo's Tarkamt threatens to create a black hole big enough to engulf the universe with a set of Merzbowian electronics

I first experienced this album, on headphones, during a delayed train journey across the Pennines. If anything, the external rumbling and rattling locomotive ambience, and even the conductor's apologetic announcements about a rail-side fire on the line between Huddersfield and Deighton, only added to Tarkamt's post-industrial soundscrapes. I don't suppose our privatised railway companies call them “conductors” anymore. I bet they're all "Customer Comfort Solutions Assistants" by now. Yet I digress.

Cherif El-Masri, who records as Tarkamt, probably doesn't have the most intimate knowledge of North English transport connections, given that he is based in Cairo, where he has also played in Procession Towards The Unknown, The Invisible Hands and other projects. (Incidentally, I did once observe the Yorkshire-born documentarian Michael Palin, in a segment from one of his famous travelogues, struggling to purchase a train ticket in Egypt because he couldn't speak the local language, and it was a lot less hassle than translating one of LNER’s automated ticket machines.)

1100 dB is both less playful and less varied than the first Tarkamt cassette, which is understandable given that the last couple of years have been quite the downbeat global headfuck. 2018’s Live At The Necropolis (not an actual live album) was a bubbling cauldron of psychedelic, jazz-tinged, beats-ridden kosmische Musik. While El-Masri played most of the instruments himself (guitars, synths, bass, percussion, drum machines, etc.), the album also featured guest vocals from Sammy Sayed and an alto-sax solo courtesy of El-Masri’s Invisible Hand-mate, the venerable Alan Bishop.

For this new one, El-Masri lifted his title from the scientific theory that any sound which managed to reach 1,100 decibels would unleash so much energy that it would create a black hole large enough to swallow our entire universe. He conceived its music as the soundtrack to an imaginary monochrome sci-fi B-movie, although also in mind were his personal “experiential confrontations with spiritual crises”. In scoring his made-up cinematic dystopia, El-Masri stuck to just one instrument this time round: a Trogotronic m/699 Boss Hog synthesizer, which the press release describes as “battered”. Presumably this means the instrument has been knocked around a bit over the years rather than covered in flour and deep fried. Having said that, when listening to a screaming noise track such as ‘White Phosphorous’, it’s easy to imagine its creation did involve plunging the tortured synth in and out of Harry Ramsden’s sizzling oil bath.

Similarly Merzbowian levels of analogue ear destruction can be heard on the first movement of ‘Coreward’, a static bulwark which eventually breaches to let in some caboose-like vibrations. Other pieces are calmer and more measured. There is a nearly relaxing spaciousness to the abstract fuzz of opener ‘The Big Rip’. Conversely to ‘Coreward’, ‘Brain In A Jar’ is tranquil at first before Tarkamt introduces what sounds like the manipulated sample of a wild west gunfight.

At about ten minutes apiece, the two longest and most captivating songs are ‘Wormhole City I’ and ‘Wormhole City II’. The first one is like spending solitary confinement in the factory-sized engine room of a spaceship as big as Red Dwarf. Its later sequel, which closes the album, is another hulking vat of astro-steam.

1100 dB is not the same kind of journey that Live At The Necropolis took listeners on, therefore. And it is enjoyable for a whole set of different reasons. It’ll be fascinating to see where Tarkamt takes listeners next time round, presuming it isn’t a one-way ticket to the obliterating heart of a supernova.