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Album review: Imarhan “Imarhan”

June 23, 2016

Imarhan’s debut presents the band’s musical vision with a clarity and dynamism that makes it a compelling and essential listen, as well as a unique snapshot of the leading edge of contemporary assouf music.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Imirhan albumFormed in 2008 in Tamanrasset (the chief city of the Algerian Tuareg), Imarhan have spent much of the intervening years on the road, building a deserved reputation as one of the leading lights of the new generation of the primarily guitar-driven style known as assouf. Recorded in 2014 in Paris, Imarhan’s self-titled debut album has now been given a full release on the Berlin-based City Slang label and the band is presently gearing up for a number of live dates in England and Scotland in its support.

The band has long-established links with Tinariwen: Imarhan’s frontman Iyad Moussa Ben Abderahmane (nicknamed Sadam) toured with Tinariwen for a time, while Sadam’s cousin, Eyadou Ag Leche (Tinariwen’s bass player) produced this album. That said, Imarhan’s sound is very much their own blend: as the PR notes observe, it “reflects their cultural and generational background; dry guitar riffs, pop melodies and pan-African rhythms which draw on traditional Tuareg music, African ballads and the modern pop and rock the band heard growing up”.

The trademark sense of melancholia embodied in assouf sets the mood of the opening ‘Tarha Tadagh’. It’s a spacious and brittle midtempo arrangement featuring some nimble guitar riffing and a pulsing bassline with some subtly polyrhythmic percussion, over which Sadam’s almost murmured vocals sing a sad tale of love gone bad.

‘Tahabort’ widens the lyrical focus from personal heartache to the sense of loss felt as a result of separation from family and friends as well as the familiar surroundings of home. Musically, it ramps up the tempo a couple of notches; displaying influences from raï and funk, there’s a sense of restlessness against which the ensemble singing works well. It’s unexpectedly catchy – I’ve found myself humming the riff intermittently ever since I heard it – and there’s no doubt it was a smart choice to make it the first single (released last year) from the album.

At the heart of ‘Ibas Ichikku’ is a sinewy bluesy guitar, at times reminiscent of 1960s psych-rock, but the song’s setting – a slow and atmospheric panorama studded with sparkling percussion – evokes images of huge night skies as it modulates between minor and major chords. Lyrically, it seems to be about finding an inner ‘happy place’ during difficult times, as a way to survive intense and unspoken hardships but, regardless of any deeper meaning (which I accept may well be my own projection), it’s a powerful arrangement which draws me in every time and is a real highlight of the album.

By contrast, ‘Idarchan Net’ is a bright and sunny morning meditation, embroidered with delicate guitars and a syncopated rhythm which is made stronger by virtue of being understated. It’s hard not to be impressed by the almost telepathic interaction between the musicians, undoubtedly a result of having played together so intensively over such a long time period. Credit, too, must go to Eyadou Ag Leche’s production, as clear as glass and without getting in the way of the music’s intricacy and detail.

With its thunderous bassline and bubbling percussion, the syncopated backbeat groove of ‘Assossamagh’ is incredibly light on its feet. It exudes an air of brooding restlessness which makes the ideal setting for the song’s lyrical advice to the listener to not be fooled by the words of others.

Title track and current single ‘Imarhan’ reprises the band’s funkier side previously displayed to such good effect in ‘Tahabort’. Guitars swathed in reverb and distortion set the pace for a solid rolling groove that just won’t stop. The combination of a huge, swaying bass sound and interlocked percussive polyrhythms make an irresistable combination and, for this listener, it’s the highlight of the album.

In passing, the track’s recently been given an extended remix by Berlin-based techno DJ Moscoman, whose flair for creating massive dancefloor hits has been put to good use and, although it’s not included with the album, is well worth checking out on Imarhan’s Bandcamp site: the breakdown at around the 5:30 mark in particular is a joyous ‘hands in the air’ moment.

After all that leaping around, the following pair of tunes – ‘Addounia Azdjazzaqat’ and ‘Id Islegh’ – offer a welcome interlude of slower melodic compositions with a distinct contemplative feel. ‘Addounia Azdjazzaqat’ features some gentle layered acoustic guitars over complex polyrhythmic percussion and a middle eight which gives the bass a chance to shine. ‘Id Islegh’ foregrounds the ensemble vocals over guitars which seem to dissolve and re-form in their own graceful kaleidoscopic dance. The two tunes complement each other beautifully; indeed, the sequencing of the whole album is another of its pleasures which only unfolds across its course.

The penultimate ‘Arodj N’Inizdjam’ is built around a chord structure which maintains an edgy tension throughout, with a minor key turnaround at the end of the refrains adding a bluesy feel. It builds gradually throughout to a slow-burning yet restrained peak and is a track which may take a couple of plays to fully appreciate, but I can well imagine it being a key part of the live set. ‘Alwak’ brings the album to its close with a sparse, low-key musing on life’s ups and downs. World-weary yet always optimistic, it makes a fitting end to a debut record which is impressively mature and assured.

Imarhan’s debut presents the band’s musical vision with a clarity and dynamism that makes it a compelling and essential listen, as well as a unique snapshot of the leading edge of contemporary assouf music. More than that, the band’s clear respect for their cultural heritage and musical roots while simultaneously creating a sound which is so forward-looking and open, suggests that Imarhan will come to be seen as a landmark album which defines a genre.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (22 June 2016)

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