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Arguably, one of the most thrown around terms in music could be considered "soul". When describing a particular instrument or song, I've often heard many a music fan claim an instrument has a very "soulful" sound, which more or less didn't help in their description of the music at all. I think at the time I was just ignorant to the ability of a musical instrument to have "soul". Now, don't get me wrong, prior to hearing this album I'd heard plenty of songs with such a description and recognized playing of the soulful sort. But this album really is an exercise in making music with that kind of force, that kind of personality.
Essentially, this album is not overtly complex in a technical sense. Rhythmically and layerwise, there are indeed many different melodies melding and mixing at once, but they stay within the realm of straightforward yet winding composition. Where one melody ends, another begins with seamless transition that would appear to carry forward the previous one. Continuity is huge here, and it's without a doubt a strong point of the work. However, even the most solidly played music still has to have some kind of charm to it's production value or it becomes an empty, hollowed out shell of media garbage.
This album does not suffer from such a problem. As always, Senmuth's production job is top-notch - however, here is where his tinkerings with tonality shine through more noticeably than on other works. Primarily the main instruments are a sitar, a violin and ethnic percussion - each produce a very wide variety of tones and sounds. I particularly like the violin's, as it's not the soft and rounded kind that violin enthusiasts are more accustomed to. It feels crisp, more cutting than usual. It lends itself well to the very middle-eastern atmosphere here and really pulls at your heartstrings on songs like "Levant" - again, it demonstrates the quality of "soul" very well.
The sitar could arguably considered the most complex of all instruments on "Madinat al-Mayitt". Senmuth's emphasis on sitar melodies is very much so at the forefront of many of the compositions here. "Ain Dara" and "Serjillah", for example, are almost carried forward by the transitions in sitar melodies. Many of the sitar tunes are also very catchy -- a definite plus for those looking for memorable tunes. However, staying true to Senmuth's industrial metal roots, the sitar also often melds with electric guitar. "Qatoure" showcases a very odd feel of very heavy guitar that manages to plow forward yet not really "chug" in that annoying fashion critics of modern industrial metal so often bring up.
The marrying of electronic, industrial and metal music is another facet of modern industrial metal that happens rather often here. Electronic melodies are more sparse than other Senmuth works, but have an important role in backing the other instruments and ocassionally coming to the front to add to a particularly "modern" atmosphere - almost as if our technological world has assimilated the old ways of the middle east and created a new world where they "fit in". Such artsy claims may seem contrived, but this album does indeed often sound very sad and mournful for a culture that's long since been perverted by the world's ever changing society.
Finally, I'd like to note "Ishtar". This may be the most straightforward metal song present on "Madinat al-Mayitt", though it still takes a few minutes to get there due to Senmuth's experimental nature. Once it does get going though, you're treated to rapid industrial riffs with a thick yet razor-like tone (again emphasizing tonality) that builds up to one of Senmuth's most powerful solos yet. Definitely a highlight of an already very powerful album (though it has some hindrances, such as "Ziqqurat"s somewhat overly synthetic production issues or an odd track transition). I recommend this to those who want a real taste of middle-eastern music, rather than whatever progressive radio-friendly spew Orphaned Land have been making.
Highlights: Ain Dara, Ishtar, Qatoure, Ebla, Qalb Lozeh, Levant