Ben Cardew On Hieroglyphic Being’s The Disco’s Of Imhotep

In Jamal Moss's latest outing as Hieroglyphic Being, Ben Cardew finds a record of two halves, split between lofty spiritual ambition and music for grubby basement clubs, working in tandem

Poke around the outer limits of the more colourful music festivals and you will often find someone offering a gong bath, a fashionable kind of sound healing that uses the vibrational frequencies of the gong to reduce stress.

It’s the kind of idea that raises rather mixed feelings for the devoted music fan. On the one hand, being healed by a gong sounds like the kind of hippy dippy fluff that is best left behind in the Healing Field at Glastonbury alongside laughter workshops and tarot. On the other, it would take a joyless turd indeed not to admit that music can exert a special power on the mind, body and soul, be it the euphoric uplift of a strident house piano riff or the creeping dread of My Bloody Valentine’s noise holocaust.

Hieroglyphic Being – aka Sun Ra-worshipping Chicago producer Jamal Moss, an artist who bridges old and new school Chicago electronic music history – seems like the kind of person who would enjoy a gong bath. His new album, for Ninja Tune’s Technicolour label, is named after Ancient Egyptian healer Imhotep and is intended to create “frequencies and vibrations for the listener that are conducive for him or her to heal the mind and body and enrich the soul”. “It’s Sound Healing, but the ancestors would call it Frequency Medicine,” Moss explains in the bumpf accompanying the release.

Considered in those terms, the album sounds like a rather po-faced affair. But the key to its appeal lies in the (annoyingly ungrammatical) “Disco’s” that sits alongside Imhotep in the title. Because for all its lofty ambition this, when you get down to it, is an album suited for pleasingly grotty basement clubs as well as sonic healing.

Gorgeously drifting ambient album opener ‘The Shrine Of The Serpent Goddess’ aside, the production here is overlaid with solid, sometimes distorted, four four kicks which anchor the project in techno reality. Alongside jazz, Moss is a big fan of industrial music and you can hear this influence grind its wickedly distorted way across ‘Heru’, where drum hits fall like planes from the sky onto a Pizzicato synth run.

The regular kick drums, in fact, are probably the only straightforward thing about this album, Moss’s 35th (or so) solo effort. Elsewhere, the music feels like a shifting sand of polyrhythmic beats, jazzy synth melodies and submerged melodic detail, which nod to the room-shaking metallic funk of techno and the outlandish free spirit of free jazz, without ever fully committing to either camp.

Contrasts are to be found everywhere. Against the distortion reflect delicate melodies; beyond the four four thump, Moss’s synths unfurl in wildly intricate polyrhythms. On ‘Spiritual Alliances’, for example, mossy organ chords and high-pitched P-funk squeals are indifferent to the underlying bass drum throb, while the airy title track is home to submerged drum breaks that seem to shed randomly from the track’s main rhythm.

Then there’s the question of repetition. Most dance music as we know it is based on recurring musical themes which overlap in a pattern of build and release. On first listen, The Disco’s of Imhotep appears to do the same. But lend a vigorous ear to, say, the arpeggiated synth patterns on ‘Sepulchral Offerings’ and you will find they never quite repeat, with a single note shifting from one bar to the next, or a slight fluctuation in rhythm over time.

Moss believes this kind of meticulous musical transformation can help humans to reach a healing trance and, whether you agree with him or not, it certainly gives an alluringly human touch to his productions. You can sense the beautifully mortal imperfection on a track like album closer ‘Nubian Energy’, which takes Moodymann’s gritty house funk and submerges it in wobbly filth.

The sheer care and attention behind this music is evident throughout the album’s nine tracks. Not only is the production meticulously tweaked, it also comes with a great deal of thought behind it. Moss, for example, has said that he researched and tested the rhythms he uses, finding out that they come from a tribe in Senegal. Given his outrageously prolific output, such attention to detail is quite incredible.

Of course, with so much music behind him, you may wonder what more Moss could possibly bring to the party on the new album. The answer is brevity. Moss’s tracks typically stretch across a canvas of eight to ten minutes; here, nothing is longer than 5:14 (on ‘The Way Of The Tree Of Life’), with most tracks checking in around the four-minute mark.

“This is probably the first album where I had to learn how to convey a sonic story in a shorter period of time,” Moss recently told my podcast, Line Noise. “That was the whole thing about this project: to shorten everything down and get to the point, get to the meat of it, keep the energy going and not let it dissipate.”

In this he has succeeded. It’s like the songs here have been chopped down to their essence, leaving an energetic, even poppy, residue that bursts with energy. It is a formula that makes this the most approachable album to date from Hieroglyphic Being and it makes sense that it has found a home on Ninja Tune.

Moss told Line Noise that he hopes The Disco’s Of Imhotep “could set a precedent for other artists to try to do the same thing with their music. Not just to be about this style of music but actually to the roots of healing.” And while that may be slightly ambitious – can you imagine Afrojack trying to induce Electric Daisy Carnival’s Bro raver posse into a state of spiritual healing? – Hieroglyphic Being does seem ready to take on the world with this brilliantly outlandish yet accessible album

This is techno music that fires the mind and soothes the soul; intricate, micro-tuned productions that work on a guttural level; electronic music that soars by aural intelligence rather than lumpen sonic trickery. In the end, you may not be healed by The Disco’s of Imhotep but you’ll certainly be uplifted. And that is surely better than any amount of Healing Field frippery.

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