Artist: El Mahdy Jr.
Album: Die Before Your Die
Record Label: Boonarm Nation
You can download Die Before You Die on a "name-your-price" basis from Boonarm Nation's Bandcamp page HERE.
In a world where the Middle East is perpetually purveyed as a crisis-battered, war-torn mess in mainstream Western media, it's important to stay culturally astute. Ignoring an insider's perspective is as dangerous and evasive as it is wrong-headed, and in the same respect the fact that the Middle East has been, for thousands of years, a hub of academic and artistic progression gets swamped by post-truth right-wing deviancy.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Boonarm Nation have been trying to ensure that this destructive (and now unnervingly powerful) mindset doesn't gain any more traction, and Algerian producer El Mahdy Jr.'s Die Before You Die mixtape is one of the finest examples of their emblematic work.
Released in late 2016 as a limited edition cassette with no track-list, the tape is two sides (each clocking in at just under the 20-minute mark) of genre-hopping but identity drenched excellence, comprising of hand-picked tunes as well the airing of tracks supposedly set to be released on Mahdy Jr.'s forthcoming new album.
Side A begins on a mystical and jarring mix of a lonely flute against deep-set and dark ambience, immediately suggestive of that aforementioned grim portrayal of bombed cities and demagoguery that we often get fed. From here it rolls on into avant-garde electronica which pits itself against a sweeping spoken word sample which asserts that "the word of love has become common, but the reality of love is a hidden treasure". This feels particularly symptomatic of a time where not only the romantic attributes of love are twisted, but community spirit has become even more ambiguous.
The mood on 'Side A' is consistently dark and glitchy until the 9-minute mark when traditional Algerian folk music rears its head for the first time, projecting reflective but colourful and even slightly catchy presence into the proceedings. It's a beautifully swift change of tact. In the side's final 6 minutes we're directed back to off-kilter beat experimentation and a mesh of haunting vocal samples which climaxes in a wonderfully fluid transition from kaleidoscopic guitar-based hypnotism into weirdo heaviness as the side ends.
'Side B' follows on from the previous side's fiercely anti-social rhythms and ventures into cavernous dubstep, rip-roaring progressive hip-hop and deeply spiritual, trance-inducing harmonising. It feels far less cult-like than it does an endorsement of cohesion and in that context it's positively life affirming. From here the tape takes on a more celebratory tone, adding glorious brass and '60s psych-esque keyboards to its arsenal at the mid-point before transforming into an ethereal, epic guitar gambit that was made to soundtrack long drives across the Atlas Mountains or Sahara-baked lowlands. "What space are we holding on this planet?" enquires a cosmic vocal cut, with resonance that is both deeply evocative of humanitarian crisis AND a desire to find a new world.
Die Before You Die is a wind-swept time capsule of the varying cultural moods, expressions and beauties that lie at the centre of the Middle East's artistic revolution. It's sometimes fierce, sometimes anxious and always sensitive; all characteristics that allow it to bubble with effective atmosphere, despite how discombobulating it can sometimes be.