Jerusalem in My Heart
By Robin Smith | 23 July 2013
Mo7it Al-Mo7it (Ocean of the Ocean) is a tribute to Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s time flicking through tape stalls in Lebanese markets and taking home twenty five different types of music at once. If you’ve been to a record store and picked up some very real nonsense and some accidental classics at the same time, you’ve done something sort of similar, but not really. Actually, that’s a neat way to think about an album that is going to have monumental contextual problems when you find it on the internet and don’t know what to do with it: if you read this review and maybe decide to check it out, you’ll be like Moumneh, assuming nothing of a musical past, but you might enjoy it anyway. That’s how context should work. You might not be hearing this music right, and it’s certainly not being heard in a way that makes sense of it, but it makes for a special kind of album, one you can stumble upon and sit with. No, music isn’t a Universal Language: it’s a million great ones.
Mo7it Al-Mo7it is the music of Moumneh, but it’s only one-third of the Jerusalem in My Heart project, a sensory art trio that builds their live show from a synthesis of audio, visuals, and light projections. Dan Boeckner noted that their performances are “political by their visual nature,” suggesting we’re missing an integral part of the project in what we can’t see. Moumneh’s album isn’t going to be played with such an accompaniment due to the continually morphing way his music works with film loops (in an email from Moumneh, he said as much: “It’s never really the same thing ever”), which opens up an odd paradox. Mo7it Al-Mo7it isn’t the complete picture, but it also doesn’t lend itself to one. The band’s live shows may have insisted upon a record, but they also predated it, and their improvisational nature has little tangible connection to this particular late-night epiphany. You need to see these songs live, but you can’t, and so they only exist in the space this album confines them to, leading them to speak a wonderfully half-complete language.
Moumneh seems quite conscious of these problems. His music doesn’t obtain the same explicable power when exposed on its own, and on the blogosphere it literally struggles to translate, the conversion from Arabic script to Western leaving his song titles scrambled, the numbers three and seven standing in as a digital rendering of phonetic sounds that can’t be read, only made. His music is punished by listeners inducting their own information about what Middle Eastern music elicits; he’s predicted his fans to be “90% Anglophiles,” leading to the xenophobic type-casting of his music as “prayer.” The problem is that the average listener isn’t in on the context of Mo7it Al-Mo7it, so they siphon it off into their own easy world, one built on flimsy, othering logic. It’s an attempt to have it both ways: “this is different, but I understand it.” It’s the perfect Universal Language myth.
Moumneh’s problems are external, and what Mo7it Al-Mo7it reminds me of, in that regard, is Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (2011), an album laden with an impenetrable wall of context but so gut-busting you fall free of it. Moumneh’s droning experiments are one with Stetson’s mesmerizing sax blowouts; I imagine both would be something else live, mostly because of how physically they impress upon the room. Moumneh’s diversely used voice expresses as much anguish as Stetson can by breathing hot air (“Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes,” a banger in a confusing wasteland), and the undeviating synth patterns he sets on course begin a journey that Judges might go on. Both albums develop hypnotically, in continually developing wave crests. You can see why their music has an extension, be it visual or strenuously conceptual, but you’re also expected to feel through their worlds by ear. Like his labelmate, Moumneh has made an album that is most enthralling once the notion of “experimental” has been shaken off.
What’s left is the Constellation Special: an urgent journey through the night, starring a protagonist walking an endless landscape. Mo7it Al-Mo7it is certainly physical, invoking the sensory as its live show might, but that’s because Moumneh is carrying it. On “Yudaghdegh Al-Ra3Ey Wala Al-Ghanam,” the record’s centerpiece, he runs together two accelerated synth lines for three minutes, modulating them none, as if incapacitated by them. The only dominion he seems to hold over the song is found in walking away from it. “Yudaghdegh,” with its powerless narrator, reminds me of Godspeed’s heavily landscaped “East Hastings,” a desperate scene written into its ontology and an echoing voice that remains a speck on it. Moumneh’s dominating vocals swing high above the whirring synths in an attempt to mute them, but it sounds like an overloud plea. Efrim Menuck had “Where are you going?” as his apocalypse chant on F# A# Infinity (1997), and like his world, Moumneh doesn’t get the final say. “Ocean of the Ocean,” indeed: this is bigger than you. It will eat you last.
Mo7it Al-Mo7it is a really great electronic album, meticulously crafted, but also a very pretty acoustic one, totally spontaneous. Like Stetson, Moumneh often improvises on his own time, rerouting context to his own momentary experience. He drunkenly composed the three instrumentals that appear here and recorded them to his iPhone, worried that if he didn’t capture them in that moment he wouldn’t at all. That’s the power of a live show, instilled into a record which seeks to be a sampler of one: you only hear the first take of these songs, as if they’ve been expelled from consciousness and captured just once. Moumneh’s attraction to collecting tapes is made obvious by his own one-take music style; it’s the closest to a live performance an album can get, recorded haphazardly, for the convenience of destiny. The grainy, lo-fi production of Mo7it Al-Mo7it makes it more intimate at times, and more intense at others (again, it’s like Moumneh just can’t contain this sound), but it’s also a sign of the music’s necessity.
Moumneh’s instrumental compositions are strummed frenetically on the buzuk, each as spectral and sonorous as the more tightly constructed synth pieces. Each has the same droning quality, too; initially sparse and unmoved, they become ornate, with different strumming patterns interweaving repetitiously. “3andalib al-furit” endlessly trades one unfinished riff for another, with ghostly harp imprints and Moumneh later layering in the programmed sound of birds, shining a brief pocket of light onto the album. He seems more comfortable on the ground with these pieces (I guess these songs are universal, in that way: feel anxious, get drunk), but they still feel tied to their landscape, as if this music had to come out of it. These instrumentals might be art by chance, but that is all the more demanding—this is the only time for them.
It’s not these pieces that cause a context grind, though. Mo7it Al-Mo7it will be considered spiritual and prayer-like by some because of Moumneh’s voice, as well as the language barrier. It’s a voice cast with a deceptive height, as if Moumneh is watching the earth from the clouds, or sending words up to the sky. But listen closer and it sounds like a direct reaction to the album’s earth traumas: “Koll lil-mali7ati fi al-khimar al-aswad” begins with Moumneh’s smoothly intoned vocals and nothing else, but the voice is shaken by the sharp ambience around it, becoming harder to distinguish as the song fills with electronic effects. Moumneh’s vocals are often just the loudest thing on Mo7it Al-Mo7it, but they remain part of the scene, treated in the same way. On “3anah jarbanah” they act as an instrument, soaked in reverb to give the chant its musicality. Moumneh doesn’t sound spiritual; if anything, he sounds like your average existentialist, made desperate by the sense there’s nothing beyond this.
Really, understanding Mo7it Al-Mo7it is knowing what it is to be desperate, or maybe a little lost in the world, which is basic human shit. I don’t say that to trivialize Moumneh’s work, or claim I understand it (a lyrics sheet could negate a good thousand words of this review), but to reject notions of it built on where it comes from and how it must therefore relate to us. “Amanem” is a good way to get at what this album does all at once, if you’re looking; it’s not able to reunite two cultures under one song, but it achieves brief moments of transcendence, giving a transmission that can remain unknown but also felt. Moumneh’s voice is inexplicably moving on it, making every noise the body can: he chants, wails, and hyperventilates, his words as frantic as his buzuk soloing, and eventually he starts shaking, tearful at the song’s conclusion. It’s a terrifying moment from a terrified man, and it gives me chills. That isn’t a feeling everyone’s going to have, at least not collectively, but you might enjoy your own personal apocalypse. Mo7it Al-Mo7it is able to make the ground you walk on your biggest fear.