A black and white picture of a fence and the wreckage of a modern(ist) building: that is our welcome to this Anthology of Electroacoustic Lebanese Music, featuring artists primarily based in Beirut. EAM and its more extreme sibling EAI are no strangers to the debris that whispers at the heart of every vainglorious monument built by modernity (whatever its mutations in different places throughout the globe), so it is only fitting that a generation of artists who grew up in a post-war landscape hold the ideals of progress at a healthy distance. However, this compilation does not tend, like a lot of EAM/EAI from eastern Asia and the Americas, towards a romantic inversion that sees in every new history a tragedy, sometimes finding solace in the subdued traces of the human, memorialized by the broken fragments of recent ruins.
The opening track, Tony Elieh’s “It’s good to die every now and then”, blasts open an ironic hole in modern daydreams, its unceasing beat rendered practically mute by sharp, noisy analog sound interventions. Life is a continuity pinpointed by rupture, in parallel to the way in which loss is a rupture pinpointed by continuity. It is the aural analogy of the cover art, a perspective obscured by clean, rational lines and shapes, not without its dose of black humor. Two or The Dragon’s “Prelude for the Triumphant Man”, one of the compilation’s stand-outs, presents us with a harsh industrial march that processes acoustic instruments into hollow, flat-sounding echoes of a chanting, exalted voice, the kind you’d hear in a public rally. The track’s violent edge is, nevertheless, resolved into a bright drone mix – it doesn’t elevate the ruin of industrial landscape so much as it renders it part of an aesthetic of real life mechanically interrupted. The triumphant man is a wailing voice of power, but the chords it strikes are made of the pieces of roofs collapsed by bombing, the deadly psychogeography of walls bored through by tanks and soldiers’ drills (the strategies that architecture uses to fight back). We might laugh at the terrible truth of this man and his victory, but it will always be a mirthless laughter.
There are also softer pieces in the compilation, such as Ziad Moukarzel’s “Questions of Worry”, which builds up with electronic blips and bells, its synthy drones producing an ambience of uncertainty. It’s followed by the dramatically named “The Death of Strangers”, by Fadi Tabbal, an elegiac piece that’s almost silent in comparison to the rest of the album, its soft drones almost suggestive of melodies that constantly get lost in the muddled droning of the background. The sadness it constructs, also in atmospheric, ambient terms, subtly utilizes noises to amplify the feeling, producing contrasts within its overall softer tone that lead to a sense of alienation. It is just as harsh as the more extrovertedly violent pieces, except it aims at other parts of brain, at parts of the heart thickened by the deeply unfair everyday existence of misery. The seemingly more improvisatory pieces, like Sharif Sehnaoui + Charles Cohen’s “Cut 1”, lay a bridge between the angry, ironic sections of the album and its heartfelt, meditative counterparts. Sehnaoui and Cohen field sharp noises and unpredictability like a weapon, but the individuality of their interactions always relay a certain warmth, a warmth not emanated from a fellow life but from a humming motor, from the reflection of the sun upon bent metal rubble in the middle of a silent street. It relays, in other words, a second-degree humanity, the trace of hands and fingers in things now unmade.
In the end, Unexplained Sounds is to be commended for such a coherent selection of musicians and music, but also because the digital edition of the Anthology is incredibly generous, containing more than one full hour of extra music, extending its scope even further and featuring different tracks by the same artists, showcasing their own diversity. It might not counteract the tragic outlook of the album cover, but it’s a start, a kindness in a world that goes out of its way to exploit it at all costs. (David Murrieta Flores)