Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Ilyas Ahmed - Between Two Skies

Ilyas Ahmed
Between Two Skies

Released 2005 on Self-released CD-R, re-released on Digitalis (2008
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 12/01/2010ce

About a month ago, I was asked (by myself, and by someone very convincing on Julian Cope's website - not directly, but at least I can pretend!) to name my top albums of the "noughties". In between many vituperative cursing sessions, I actually managed to come up with said albums. And among them was Ilyas Ahmed's Between Two Skies, perhaps the most obscure album of the entire fucking list (see here for more detail: http://rustedshadows.blogspot.com/2009/11/impossible-task.html).

Ahmed was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but moved to New Jersey, then Minnesota at a young age. Now, it appears he's based in Portland, Oregon. This duality of origin is intrensic to his music, particularly on Between Two Skies. The front cover, after all, depicts a woman in what appears to be traditional muslim/Pakistani garb with her eyes hollowed-out. An odd and troubling image, but one that is perfectly fitting for the disquieting, subtle tones contained within this album. Although lyricless, the ultimate vibe you get from Ahmed's songs is one of a blurred identity, of shadowy unease and lonesome self-reflection. But more of that later.

Between Two Skies was originally released as a CD-R, with packaging hand-crafted by the man himself, so we have to be very thankful to Digitalis records for this re-release (which is coupled with his second album, Towards The Night, also from 2005 and self-released, and which curiously features eyes but no face on its cover - not a coincidence, methinks...). The sound is great for something so lo-fi, and it is one of those aural experiences that is almost immediately rapturous, sucking you in in one go and not letting you go until the record has run its course. From what I can gather (he is after all, a pretty elusive and unknown artist), Ahmed recorded this on his own in a cabin lost up in the dark forests of Minnesota, surrounded by nothing more than the trees. It's mostly acoustic music (only occasional electric guitar drones break from this trend), "folk" for want of a better word, although "heathen" would probably suit better, with Ahmed accompanying himself with delicate acoustic guitar arpeggios, the tinkling of a piano and some vague percussion. Considering he doesn't sing words, his voice is oddly the main ingredient of his fascinating mix. Each track sees him intone soft, wordless chants of such stark, raw beauty that they convey heaps more than any set of lyrics could. Again, you think back to his Asian heritage, with echoes of Sufi or Buddhist chanting, but this has been filtered through his American musical heritage to deliver something pretty much unique, for all the James Blackshaw/Ben Chasny comparisons. His elusive, darting guitar notes, that seem to flit around his voice like persistent flies, echo not the plodding chords of traditional anglo-american folk and rock, but rather the bold, insistent soloing of Coltrane-esque free jazz. It's no surprise that Ahmed names A Love Supreme as a major influence in his musical education.

But trying to decode Ahmed's work in purely musical terms is to miss the point. This is music that functions primarily -you might even say exclusively- on emotional levels. The first melancholic notes of "Black Midas" are enough to get the hairs on your spine tingling, and that's even before Ahmed releases his dreamy, mournful falsetto. When he does, it's musical gold, the kind of primeval, profound sound that can only come from that most elusive and nebulous of human attributes - the soul. Whenever I have doubts as to the existence of such a thing, I put Between Two Skies on.

The centrepiece of the album is the 16-minute masterpiece "To You Soon/Silence The High", an unreal track, where Ahmed's love of experimental music and free jazz comes through most clearly. It's an acoustic and an electric guitar duet (duel?) over increasingly warped wordless wailings, the instruments evoking Sonny Sharrock's staccato solos on 1968's Black Woman, while Ahmed's distant moans come across like a druggier, less directly political, answer to Linda Sharrock's screaming on that record. Midway through, Ahmed introduces jarring percussion, a stunted, halting rhythm that is pure raga, hence re-connecting with Ahmed's Asian roots, although his by now pained vocals come across as much as akin to Native American chanting as they do to Sufi/Pakistani music. But this is not some retro attempt at "World" music, and "To You Soon/Silence The High" also evokes the wordless avant-garde of Yoko Ono's first album. It's electric, even though the actual music is acoustic.

Sitting somewhere between a stripped-down 'Trane (maybe the ambient side of Miles Davis, displayed on "He Loved Him Madly" or In A Silent Way would be the most apt reference point) and the pagan ragas of Ben Chasny, Ilyas Ahmed's music is an odd proposition - deep, dark and meaningful. It's the music of wind-swept steppes, barren plains and snow-laden conifer trees. It's primordial and yet forward-thinking, a music for all civilisations seen through one lost soul's eyes. It's timeless and hypnotic, challenging and emotionally pure. It's essential, simple as.

From my blog: rustedshadows.blogspot.com

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