Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a fan of ‘goth’ music, particularly the brand of melancholic, elegant and often female-centered ‘etherealwave.’ I adored the music of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil—the whole 4AD label aesthetic of refined darkness. It was (and still is) a rarefied sound, full of poetic abstraction and shrouded in mystery. Azam Ali’s new album, Phantoms, recalls this dark and dreamy sound, though it’s filtered through the prism of darkwave, electronica and trip hop.
I’ve been following Ali’s music from the beginning of her career. She started out in the World/New Age duo Vas, where she put her own spin on glossolalia-styled vocalizations, a technique that Lisa Gerrard and Elizabeth Fraser mastered. Her next band Niyaz crafted elaborate electronic soundscapes using mystical Sufi poetry as lyrics. She also released an album of interpretations of sacred music (Portals of Grace), an album of Persian lullabies (From Night to the Edge of the Day) and was a member of the dark rock band Roseland (!) Ali’s voice is a beautiful instrument, a supple alto that can soar effortlessly into crystalline soprano heights. Her singing blends Persian, Indian and classical Western styles in a way that reminds me of the work of Sheila Chandra. An undercurrent of gothic melancholia runs through most of her work, even the more ‘world’ music pieces.
This gothic strain is front-and-center on Phantoms. (There’s even a cover of a Cocteau Twins song, “Shallow Then Halo,” from their gothiest first album Garlands). Ali’s lyrics are full of images of bleakness and regret, when you can understand them. Ali’s singing and enunciation treats English words as onomatopoetic devices, and she seems to be more interested in their phonemic qualities. Her use of her voice as an instrument really highlights the sleek electronic settings of the songs, which Ali programmed and produced herself. The sonic sculpture is as alluring as her voice, which is quite an accomplishment.
References: Portishead, Siouxsie Sioux, Massive Attack, Soho Rezanejad