In this disastrous time for the Middle East, with so much tragedy and misinformation cruising the information superhighway, it’s worth remembering the cultural bounty that Western Asia has on offer. The Middle East has always been a cultural force to be reckoned with, and its latent exoticism still has the ability to enrapture the Western imagination, giving us something of ‘the other’ which is both enticing and desirous. Shifting Mirrors, the third album for Franco-American ensemble Blaak Heat (formerly Blaak Heat Shujaa), sees the band taking Turkish and Arabic folk influences and weaving them, with relative aplomb, into ’70s psychedelia with a neo-prog/stoner twist, and though it sounds a potential recipe for disaster if done incorrectly, they manage to succeed with impressive conviction.
Shifting Mirrors is a curious title and one which has both artistic and political connotations. Even though the Middle East continues to deteriorate largely due to Western engagement, politically it’s worth holding the lens up to ourselves to consider the arrogance of our assistance and innovation. Artistically though, the Turkish/Arabic influences are both mirrored by – and merged into – Shifting Mirrors‘ prog and stoner rock, with rock music and metal being the voice of transgression, youth and freedom for many bands from the region who crave liberalisation whilst attempting to retain traditional values. This trade-off of influences between the West and Middle East is also mirrored in the artwork, which once more panders to somewhat skewed Western dreams of libidinous slave girls, albeit this time looking reaper-esque with a burqa and a halo, a potential nod to the Christian/Islamic attributes of the region and the mutable nature of power. Fantastically, the depiction works rather well as a piece of art, but factually it’s risible, though no more than the 19th century Orientalist art of Jean-Léon Gérôme or Frederick Arthur Bridgman. Shifting Mirrors‘ artwork employs a far more Aesthetic over Orientalist paradigm in the vein of Aubrey Beardsley, again highlighting Western stylistics over Middle Eastern cultural influences – Turkish, in this case – with the ascenders of the band’s logos seeming to form the suspender cables of the Bosphorus Bridge behind Ortaköy Mosque.
Shifting Mirrors is, essentially, a work of psychedelic prog/stoner rock, but with grand designs to be something more exotic and historic. A lot of the tracks employ the harmonic minor, or at least the one and half tone interval, that makes Middle Eastern scaler modes sound so unusual and sensuous. Thankfully the band have decided to go further than purely nodding to their Middle Eastern influences melodically, doing so instrumentally, with oud and kanun played authentically by Professor Jim Grippo of Ventura College, California, and “Mola Mamad Djan” being ostensibly a prog rock cover of an Afghan folk song. The classical contributions are a little too sparse unfortunately, which is again the case for the shamelessly short 41 second violin “Taqsim” – a free-form solo improvisation which normally gives the musician the chance to showcase their understanding of a scaler mode [maqam] with their chosen instrument – but at such a short length it’s a cruel tease of an inclusion, and one which almost feels like an afterthought.
The album is most successful when instrumental, picking up pace soon into each number and snaking its way through a variety of different time signatures and tempos, each with its characteristic rock theme and regional influence. Mostly the results are a seamless weave but the record still errs on the side of caution, taking few risks and feeling comfortable in its cause of bearing psychedelic rock somewhere different, specifically a few thousand miles East. Thomas Bellier‘s vocals affect questionable success though: his style may be relatively true to the sounds of ’70s prog but his chosen melodies are terribly limited, seeming to strangulate the guitar and bass backing which is almost disempowered over his leads, only bursting free when his lines end. Nevertheless, the vocal leads are employed the minority of the time, so it’s almost as if keeping them short is a conscious decision to provide a distinction between two atmospheric states.
There’s no question that Shifting Mirrors is a success. In metal, bands such as Orphaned Land, Melechesh and the rising Myrath inventively hybridise metal music with Arabic and Israeli folk influences, so it’s nice to see a Western band – with Western roots – attempt something of the same for psychedelic rock. Shifting Mirrors is not a particularly complex work and it’s not a hugely challenging listen, but its heart is in its subject matter and it feels all the more alive for it. There’s a certain excitement and vividness here that gives the music an idiosyncratic consciousness – a pulse measured by haemodynamics rather than a click track – so it doesn’t need complexity to be interesting, its very cause is its soul. The cultural beauty of the Middle East is something which has long excited Western minds and infected their artistic interpretation with mixed results. Fortunately, Blaak Heat‘s cultural deferences mean they have crafted a respectful work faithful to both European and Asian sensibilities.
Due out 15th April 2016 via Svart Records
02) Sword of Hakim
03) The Approach To Al – Mu’tasim
05) Ballad of Zeta Brown
06) Black Hawk
07) Mola Mamad Djan
09) The Peace Within
10) Dense Nomade