In the summer of 2009 I was in my favorite record store browsing their overpriced stash of rare Fennesz splits, micro-edition drone cassettes and shoddily packaged CD-Rs by local bands whose most radical artistic epiphanies came when they decided to ditch the cut-price Oasis sound and move onto a cut-price Arctic Monkeys sound. In the midst of this, I realized I was involuntarily bobbing my head to the music being played on the sound system. Stepping back from the racks in order to concentrate better, I found myself riveted.
Dropping the stack of Japanese glitch albums that had slowly accumulated beneath my right armpit (natch), I approached the aged bohemian behind the counter with a quite frightening look of enthusiasm on my face, hell-bent on buying up the entire stock of whatever it was he was playing. Giving me a dismissive, pitying look, he said, "Muslimgauze," with no explanation as to who or what Muslimgauze was. He sadly ejected the CD and handed it to me, quickly replacing it with another blast of hypnotic, hard Middle Eastern percussion. "Oh, I'll take that one too…," I said. His diminutive bohemian chum emerged from the back of the store (where I'm sure he sleeps, guarding piles of some of the hardest-to-find slabs o' wax this side of a serious bee shortage), grinning and pointing at the speakers, once again reiterating what we were hearing with a single word: "Muslimgauze." It happened again and again, and in the end I went home with four Muslimgauze albums and nothing else. No weird Siberian jungle, no Polish industrial jazz, not even a shitty CD-R of sub-Verve lad rock made by forty-year old men in parkas who should know better...just my Muslimgauze, in its brown paper bag like a surreptitious bottle of booze, and me stealing home to drink it all in.
The first thing I did was peruse the artwork. Each of the albums I'd bought that day (Jebel Tariq, Izlamaphobia, Your Mines In Kabul and Hamas Ark) was striking in its appearance. They all featured fascinating imagery: a cold presentation of Eastern violence and oppression, the kind typically reserved for harrowing news reports or, worse, propaganda. The song titles were equally startling: "The Hanging Judge of Iran", "The Limb Amputator of Rinadh" and "The Suffocator of Hindustani" were the most grisly. At this point I was under the impression that I had in my possession some radical work by a Middle Eastern musical renegade, introduced to the Western world courtesy of some enterprising Western musicologist. As I slipped on Jebel Tariq, an album where the eight listed tracks seamlessly meld into one intense, repetitive flurry of percussion, I fired up the laptop to try and find out more about Muslimgauze.
Born in Manchester, UK in 1961, Bryn Jones became obsessed with Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the political workings behind the conflict's long history. Equally appalled and fascinated by what he discovered in his lengthy research, he channeled this into the music he first began to release on cassette and 7'' as E.g Oblique Graph. Jones self-released Extended Play in 1982 and avoided direct reference to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. It may have come too early on in Jones' career for him to have developed a sturdy enough bedrock on which to base his inspiration but it's interesting to note that the cassette does include a track titled "Murders Linked To Gaullist Clique" that hints at his growing interest in questionable political ideologies. Aptly, a second version includes a track titled "Extreme Faction". The tape itself is pretty decent exercise in beatless synthesizer manipulation and worlds away from the sound that initially attracted me to Muslimgauze. Subsequent early releases became steadily more overt in their politicization, but still focused on situations other than the Lebanon War, suggesting Jones was either uncomfortable referencing something so contemporary or still unsure of his stance. Titles like "Castro Regime" on the Triptych 7'' instead aim their ire at easier, more established targets.
The first release under the Muslimgauze moniker was 1983's Hammer & Sickle -- the first album where Bryn Jones proudly wore his political heart on his sleeve. Jones chose the Muslimgauze name in order to focus listeners on his own preoccupation with what was occurring in Lebanon and, as was quickly becoming apparent to him, throughout the rest of the Muslim world. A play on the word "muslin" (a gauzy type of fabric), Jones tweaked the name to suit his needs and the ways in which he wished to develop his music. Hammer & Sickle ditched the drifting ambience favored by E.g Oblique Graph and focused on beat-driven instrumentals instead, making tentative steps eastwards with a track titled "Fear of Gadaffi". Give or take the odd soiree into different political worlds, Muslimgauze's subsequent releases concentrated almost solely on Middle Eastern troubles. The die had been cast.
Over the years, Bryn Jones caught a lot of flack for having never visited the Middle East but he always insisted he thought it was wrong to impose oneself on a land already suffering the torment of occupation. Instead, Jones dedicated himself to watching from a distance, to trying to understand, to supporting a cause, and in his own way, drawing attention to the wider ramifications of the war in the Middle East. A staunch supporter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, it's fair to say Jones' political stance was atypical for young, white, non-religious men from Northwest England. In interviews Jones professed his support for other, more radical parties like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Although outspoken in his interviews, Jones never wrote lyrics and his music is almost exclusively instrumental. He claimed the artwork and titles were there for information alone -- not to incite political action or impose his views upon listeners. He stressed that his music should be enjoyed by all -- regardless of political affiliation -- and that it can be appreciated on artistic merit alone, and not just by someone with highly politicized blood coursing through his/her veins. Though it's hard to subtract the political context from tracks titled "The Aviv Nailbomb" on albums titled No Human Rights For Arabs In Israel, ultimately they are merely pieces of music -- not proclamations or calls to arms. Were the Israeli/Palestinian conflict ever to come to an end, Jones insisted he would move his interests elsewhere, to countries suffering similar upheaval and (as he saw it) unjustified persecution.
But it's with an increasingly morbid fascination that I continue to seek more Muslimgauze recordings and pore over Jones' interviews. It can't be denied that towards the end of Jones' life his music and rhetoric got enormously mechanical and repetitive. Numerous grim dedications started to appear in the liner notes and his song and album titles became suspect to the point of distraction. For example, the posthumously released Sarin Israel Nes Ziona translates roughly as "Sarin Gas Kills Zionist Israel" and was dedicated to "All The Palestinians Killed By Israel," which is just the sort of heavy-handed bombast he previously professed to avoid. Music doesn't sound as good when you have a gun stuck your mouth.
At his best Bryn Jones managed to forge an entirely new sound based around frantic, Eastern-influenced percussion breaks and newly minted IDM-inflected ambient landscapes. Albums like Izlamaphobia, Jebel Tariq and Zuriff Moussa are essential additions to any collection and can hold their own alongside anything created by celebrated doyens of the art-form like Aphex Twin, Autechre, or even micro-click technicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ryoji Ikeda. Jones' albums are so visceral in their ability to create atmosphere, tension and unease, there's really no need for the soapbox parroting that threatened to take over towards the end of Jones' life. A picture and a collection of unremitting, trailblazing mini musical masterpieces can speak a million words.
Politics aside, the question I find most people ask regarding Muslimgauze is "Where should I start?" Jones was incredibly prolific, and his catalogue is immense; diving in can be a daunting task. I'd suggest doing what I did: Go out and buy what you can find. Of the 200 or so Muslimgauze releases issued in his lifetime (and posthumously), I only own a tiny fraction and have heard few others. The important thing to bear in mind is that despite their shared politics, they're nearly all stylistically different from one another. That means you could pick up almost any Muslimgauze release and be guaranteed a unique experience.
Your playlist is lookin' mighty bare, hoss.
Click the '+' and add some tracks.
Click the '+' and add some tracks.
Empty (add some tracks!)