Richard Poulin 28-Jun-2011 Ustuqus-al-Uss

Ustuqus-al-Uss is the third instalment by Arashk, a group from Iran whose mastermind is guitarist extraordinary Salim Ghazi Saeedi. I had been completely enthralled, exhilarated, no, plain dumbfounded by their first album, Abrahadabra, which is still to me the Ultima Thule of instrumental progressive metal. Abrahadabra not only revealed to the world the incredible resourcefulness, creativity and originality of Saeedi, but presented a truly novel blend of Near Eastern folk music and the best that progressive metal has to offer. The result was an incredibly exciting collection of thermonuclear explosions of totally unreal guitar shredding with all the delights of the 1001 nights woven into the tiny spaces of silence left by the formidable wall of sound erected by Mr. Saeedi. Nothing less, and run to get it if not done already. Your heart will only function better after :-)

I was expecting Arashk to have pushed further in the direction of that Western metal/Persian fusion with Ustuqus-al-Uss, which means something like “Pour the alchemy of soul into cauldron”, and presents itself as a mini-suite completely written and (almost) played by Salim Ghazi Saeedi, who is Arashk now, really. As with all man-orchestra suites that I know (think Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield), Solitarily Speaking Of Theoretical Confinement (Ron Jarzombek), etc.), the end result suffers from the fact that most, if not all musicians, may shine on brightly with one instrument (Saeedi’s forte being of course the axe), but manage to exhibit more or less important shortcomings when playing instruments with which they are less proficient. Such shortcomings translate most of the time by obvious limits in the orchestration, even though the execution is clean and flawless per se. And that’s what I think makes Ustuqus-al-Uss a worthy, but less consistent effort. Let’s see in more detail what the final result turned out to be.

The album can be envisioned as a poem in music consisting of 9 strophes. Now, one has to be aware that Persian poetry (written in Farsi) is exceptionally rich and beautiful, and this one makes no exception. It starts with a most classical symphonic prelude, “Out Of Silence The One Ran And Returned”, starting on a martial speed evoking Holst’s Mars (of Planets and In the Wake of Poseidon’s fame), that then washes away on a quieter shore with grave piano, in the same solemn vein, and concludes with a masterful use of keyboards to simulate solo and symphonic violin sounds that work very well. Immediately, we know we are in for something very different from Arashk’s first. Abrahadabra was really an exquisite program of Persian Gulf shredding from hell with a clear sonic unity centered on Saeedi’s mind-bogglingly hyperkinetic guitar and his incredible creativity at infusing the very basis of Near-Eastern music into the structures of speed metal, together with an amazingly keen ear for highly melodic riffs. The title piece, “Ustuqus-al-Uss al Avvalin val Akharin”, is a totally maniacal, super-high-octane nuclear shredding bomb that leaves the solemn, majestic, symphonic intro, and takes off without warning, almost reaching the speed of light in a fraction of a second, leaving the listener listless and in total awe at Saeedi, the Master of Speed Axe. Later on, the dialog between the fiddle parts (played quite convincingly with synthesizers) and the electric guitar reproduces surprisingly well the exchanges between the kamancheh (a sort of violin) and the tar, so typical of Persian folk dance music. “Ustuqus-al-Uss...” is truly the piece de resistance, together with its splendidly Univers Zero-ish intro. In fact, “Ustuqus-al-Uss...” equals anything on Abrahadabra in terms of diabolical energy and fireworks, and I would almost say it even surpasses it. Salim Ghazi Saeedi is simply, in my view, the nimblest and most inventive speed freak guitarist of our times, and by far. What distinguishes Saeedi from his colleagues in that highly select club of demonstrative lunatics that regroups the Chris Impelliteri’s, Michael Angelo Batio’s, Buckethead’s and Steve Vai’s of this world (and many others) is not only the perfect timing and delivery that he maintains even at insane rocket speeds, but also the highly original blend of Eastern and Western scales that he manages to create with this style which in the hands of the above-named (except perhaps Buckethead), rapidly tends to a robotic, redundant routine. As I had mentioned about Abrahadabra, a good comparison might be Pino Marrone of Crucis fame. Think Marrone with a Persian musical background who would play Los Delirios del Mariscal after gulping twenty espressos in a cinch, and you have a rough idea of what Salim Ghazi Saeedi may sound like, but all of this is mere dancing on architecture: you really have to listen to get Abrahadabra and enjoy this masterpiece. But back to Ustuqus now...

Starting with slow arpeggios in the same ominous tone as the overture, the suite moves on with “Outer Aeonic Descend”, which slowly builds up with percussion, crashing heavy chords, followed by a piano fugue in an ELP/RIO sort of way. The whole thing is very original and interesting, especially with its frequent use of sudden breaks to create movement and action. A small chamber RIO piece that once again points to whole new directions.

And from now on, the suite starts to display signs of weakening. Maybe “Ustuqus-al-Uss al Avvalin val Akharin” left Saeedi out of breath and washed out, but all I know is that erosion is taking its toll on the imagination heard in the following strophes... The “suite” seems to lack inspiration at this stage, and the compositions, rather than showing a sense of direction as at the beginning, seem to wander ever more aimlessly, one track after another. But the downhill trend is not steep, only slowly but surely descending.... unfortunately, however.

It starts with “My Inner Sun”, an amazing recreation of a small chamber orchestra without strings, and extends the same vein as in the previous track. The only annoying thing here, really, is the drum machine, which sounds much cheaper than the other electronic devices that simulate an orchestra, but much more successfully so. Saeedi, who is responsible for keyboards, uses these sections as a showcase for his orchestral ambitions. He is the poet behind these aural strophes that want to tell a story. And ...whoa! Arashk/Saeedi is showing its teeth to the mullahs and the ayatollahs with “Government”, and I wonder how he gets away with it, as the music speaks for itself. Heavy pounding guitar, accentuated by the piano, it clearly shoots flames of anger, and no need to read Le Courrier Diplomatique to figure out how and why. Of course, instrumental pieces make the safest political resistance, and I doubt that the bearded morons, with all their duplicity (as the poem goes), decipher that language, which has more to borrow from Present and Univers Zero than Persian folk dances...

As for the remainder of the album, it descends and descends, slowly... There is more annoying drum machine with “Naught Been I Thou”, although in this case it might be used more to simulate snare drums and a vaguely warrior-like spirit. Fortunately, with toned down electric guitars and the same ominous, UZ-ish atmosphere prevailing since the beginning, the piece still holds its water well. One might describe it as a sort of crossover between Near Eastern folk and Downtown-Zorn-inspired music. Not bad, but one senses deeper and deeper breathing. As in the next track, “My Third Eye”, the now increasingly familiar combination of piano, synthesizers, and soaring, very heavy layers of guitar, yet and again counterweighted with simple piano chords, leaves an impression of prog metal defying gravity, but sounds same-ish and same-ish after what we have heard so far. Not bad, but not especially exciting either. One might sure use a Fourth Eye with a Third Eye like this...

What one does not need at this stage, is a bluesy slow played by a sort of Persian Santana, with bursts of speedkraut-like riffing a la Älgarnas Trädgård or Humus: “Artemis The Huntress”. Fortunately, the piece has a more interesting middle development, with less predictable counterpoint, but then it’s ... quickly back to the juicy, languorous kissing on the dance floor, with more heavy hiccups, etc. Artemis is indeed a very tricky huntress, but she uses rather old tricks...

What could possibly conclude this very disjointed sort-of-suite? Yep, you guessed right: a Persian reggae (or rug-gae?) that has no ending, because it abruptly terminates in midair like Bach’s XIVth counterpoint in his Art of Fugue. If that recording was made to end like this on purpose, well, I’m Napoleon’s grand-grand-grandson (or am I?). It does seem to have been left uncompleted for some unknown reason (maybe a mullah heard Track 5, “Government”, and seized the only good recording of the final strophe? An enquiry is needed here. In any case, after having been treated with flamboyant guitar such as on Abrahadabra or on the title piece here, this ruggae is really nothing more original than your average Forever Einstein: a simple, quiet and somewhat bland chamber guitar trio exercise illustrating a rare time signature, but without consequence and leaving one’s memory as quickly as it has entered it.

Let’s get this right: Ustuqus-al-Uss is overall an excellent effort, but its uneven vein of inspiration leaves mixed feelings. Fortunately, the good parts of it are extremely good, which buys off the lack of originality felt especially in the last third of the album. The doctor prescribes the return of Saeedi to a real trio formation and forgetting about the man-orchestra solution. Arashk bursts with so much talent and creativity and opens such unlimited possibilities, with its unique flamboyant Persian speed prog metal creations that struck me as incredibly brilliant and exciting, that I would hate its loss to oblivion. Here is such a rare event: an outstanding progressive musical force and once again, the most complete speed freak guitarist in this spot of the Milky Way, but from a place as improbable (for the style) as present Iran.

01. Out Of Silence The One Ran And Returned – 02:32
02. Ustuqus-al-uss-al-awalin Val Akharin – 03:15
03. Outer Aeonic Descend – 03:04
04. My Inner Sun – 04:21
05. Government – 04:21
06. Naught Been I Thou – 03:30
07. My Third Eye – 04:22
08. Artemis The Huntress – 05:41
09. Supreme Grades – 04:10

Pouyan Khajavi : Guitar solo on track 2
Salim Ghazi Saeedi : Guitar, percussion, keyboards
Shahram Khosraviani : Percussions on track 9.

Richard Poulin 1-May-2008 Abrahadabra

Salim Ghazi Saeedi - Guitars / Bass/ Keyboards
Poojan Khajavi - Guitars
Shahram Khosraviani - Drums

One thing that all prog aficionados know very well is that the most extraordinary musical productions in the genre have often come from the most improbable places. After all, try to name other markets where music is classified by countries. Progressive music lovers know their geography and where to look for in order to find the cream. So during the baptismal journey that many of us make to get acquainted with the hallmarks of progressive rock, we inevitably realize that astonishing, often extremely defiant albums were born in countries we could barely locate on a map before we had heard of such prodigies. Who else than amateurs of prog can proudly associate top notch music to countries such as Armenia (e.g. Oaksenham, Artsruni) or Turkmenistan (Gunesh Ensemble), just to name these two? The desire to transcend the boundaries of endemic music into something universal has led to the ever richer melting pot into which progressive or modern music is transforming itself. When the Beatles and other creators of art rock realized that rock music can easily conjugate itself to most other musical genres to generate interesting hybrids, experiments of ever increasing complexity were conducted, first in Great Britain, and rapidly all across the world.

But to describe the surprise one might have after listening to Abrahadabra, the first effort by Arashk, is rather difficult. First, Arashk (Salim Ghazi Saeedi, guitars, bass and keyboards/ Poojan Khajavi, guitars/Shahram Khosraviani, drums) hails from the Axis of Evil itself, and more exactly from Iran. And Abrahadabra is anything but world music. It contains in fact some of the juiciest, fuzziest and wildest guitar shredding album you will find anywhere. Simply for being so unashamedly heavy and metallic in a country where such things are not supposed to happen in the first place, these musicians could deserve our greatest admiration. But we tend to forget that Iran was one of the most modern Islamic nations before Ayatollah Khomeini seized power there in 1979. So a long tradition of rock music has existed and continues to do so in that large country, although it understandably had to operate in an underground fashion to survive. In fact, the Iranian government, through its Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which protects Iranian people from Western cultural demons, has officially approved a few rock bands, like Meera, for example. Thus, one has to realize that the Iran of the mullahs is fairly liberal in this 21st century, as compared with its Afghanistan neighbor, or even Saudi Arabia. And I know it for a fact, having Iranian relatives.

Tolerance and underground operations have thus contributed to allow a band such as Arashk, to emerge and manage to exist and make its music available on the web. Not only is Arashk admirable for its audacity, but Abrahadabra is simply a very imaginative and extremely energetic metal progressive album. Entirely instrumental, it features two absolutely astonishing guitarists, Salim Ghazi Saeedi and Poojan Khajavi, who rock the hell out of the Kasbah on the 9 tracks of that album. I mean, these two guys, and especially Saeedi, have plugged their guitars on the contained frustration of a whole generation of angry but astute young Iranians, and the electricity that it has produced will rip apart your most stubborn prejudices. From ‘Told to the Bird’ to the final track (‘Abrahadabra’), these two guitarists deploy awe-inspiring virtuosity and an inventiveness rarely seen in a genre (talking about metal prog here) that tends to repeat itself. The secret of these musicians is apparently the sum of a total lack of inhibition in their solos, the translation of Iranian folk accents into the most violent emotions that amplified guitars can express, and an absolute mastery of all harmonic scales. The intrinsic candor of these musicians, who have nothing and everything to prove at the same time, makes possible quite a number of little rock miracles on that album.

Most of the tunes are extremely furious, rapid and high-octane progressive metal shredfests that can leave no one indifferent. Of course, Persian scales and progressions are easily noted, but definite Spanish and Moresque flavors are clearly heard here and there. Another dominant stylistic influence on many tracks is progressive surf, a genre of which I am especially fond. On ‘Route’ (track 5), one can even hear Dick Dale’s blueprint for ‘Miserlou’, which makes plenty of sense knowing the predilection that Dale has for Oriental scales. The use of synthesizers to mimic Persian dance onomatopoeias on ‘Dance of Gods’ is also very clever and adds colors to the instrumental paintings.

Speaking of painting, one of the numerous beauties of Abrahadabra is the capacity of Arashk to surprise and sustain our interest throughout the album. Although the ebullient, pyrotechnical guitar shredding is ubiquitous, the album never gets repetitious nor boring, a pitfall that undermines too many instrumental metal albums. A testimony to the genius of the band’s leader and main inspiration, Salim Ghazi Saeedi, who composes what he calls ‘pictorial rock’: the trick is to guess what these painting canvases are. In Saeedi’s own words: ‘...I like exaggerated details and very subtle techniques of instrument and when I come across for composing a catchy part in one song I see no reason for repeating it. If someone liked that part, can rewind the song (sic).’ I love his candor.....

Although Steve Vai and similar shredders are obvious comparisons here, the reference that most quickly comes to mind is Pino Marrone, Crucis’ guitarist whose incredible guitar solos make ‘Los Delirios del Mariscal’ such a memorable experience. Abrahadabra is like the famous Crucis track ‘Abismo Terrenal’ on ‘Delirios...’ multiplied by five and extended over nine tracks of total manic fury but of a very exotic and refined type. Hendrix and Santana have also obviously instructed the phenomenal axe genius that Salim Ghazi Saeedi truly is.

Highly recommended for a hefty dose of extremely heavy yet highly melodic metal of a VERY special kind.

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