Echoes October 2019 CD of the Month: Azam Ali – Phantoms

Azam Ali's Phantoms Echoes October CD of the Month

by John Diliberto 9/27/2019

Azam Ali is one of the most alluring voices of our era. She first came to renown in the 90s as the singer with the world fusion group, Vas and then the Persian fusion band, Niyaz. Her intoxicating, sensual voice is heard in dozens of films including Thor: The Dark World, 300, John Carter and Priest. She’s released a few solo albums, but none like her newest, Phantoms.

Fans of Niyaz’s more ethnically-inclined sound might find themselves adrift on Phantoms. There are none of the exotic instruments, Middle Eastern percussion, or foreign tongues that Niyaz puts on top of their electronic grooves.. Ali, who has sung in Farsi, Latin, Turkish and her own glossolalia language of the imagination, sings exclusively in English on the album.

The sound is more EDM than Eastern. You can hear the influence of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Morcheeba, and Juno Reactor in her music, but an Eastern spirit does permeate the album. As Ali has said, she is a daughter of the desert. Although the percussion is electronic on the opening track,  “Hope,” it’s built on a Persian groove. And Ali, even singing in English, can’t escape the Persian ornamentation of her phrasing. You can hear it when she curls the melody into arabesques on “Love is a Labyrinth.”

But the sound is definitely contemporary. Throbbing, downtempo grooves suffuse the album. Synthesizer scrawls carve out the melodies and growling bass lines underscore her songs. While the music of Niyaz is often ecstatically joyful, Phantoms is a darker hue. There’s a sense of loss and despair in much of the album. The opening track is called “Hope,” but one might ask if that song, or the entire album, mightn’t have been called “Hope is Lost” or taken one of her own song titles for the album’s: “Ode to Melancholy.”

You can hear her distress at the current political situation in America and the world. As an Iranian-born artist, she feels it even more keenly. Songs like “Scattered Stars” are heartbreakingly beautiful in their grandeur, but the lyrics reveal a more somber tone.

We are seeds
Sown in the garden of exile
Like broken promises
Deserted in time

One of Ali’s major inspirations has been Elizabeth Fraser of the 80s and 90s shoegaze-dream pop band, Cocteau Twins. Fraser created her own language which uncannily sounded like an actual dialect. Ali did the same thing when she emerged on the scene with Vas. But on Phantoms she covers the Cocteau’s “Shallow Then Halo”, one of Fraser’s English language songs although Fraser’s syntax makes it no more intelligible. She takes the Cocteau’s ominous groove and makes in more ominous and propulsive, turning it into a dark, dervish, her voice breaking on the lyrics in emotional bends.

Phantoms is a statement album from Azam Ali. She not only sang and composed all the songs but one, but played, arranged and programmed all the music. You won’t hear her customary hammered dulcimer, but you will get lots of vintage synth sounds both analog and digital.

Phantoms is part evolution and part departure for Azam Ali, but nothing has changed the beauty of her voice. It’s a sultry, sensual instrument that has probably launched thousands of love affairs.as her voice caresses melodies the way a lover caresses a body. However, like Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, whose hymns she has recorded, Ali is seeking the divine. She finds it on Phantoms. In the month of Echoes 30th Anniversary, I can’t think of a better album to represent the show.

Hear Azam Ali’s Interview in the Echoes Podcast.