First Annual LEBANESE UNDERGROUNDUP

Once again, a new year is upon us and an old one is fading away. Let us look back and remember what stuck out (or actually what I found to stick out, since I couldn’t be everywhere at once).

Let’s see who will take home the prestigious… Golden Earthwom

With actual dirt!

 (No one. It’s just a shoddy illustration…)

 

 

Top 5 Albums of 2010:

 5-“Fareeq el Atrash” by Fareeq el Atrash

Without a doubt, one of the best Lebanese hip hop albums, period.  I’m not talking 2010, I’m talking all time. The band has taken Arabic rap to a new level, on both the lyrical and musical levels. MCs Edd and Chyno deliver thought-provoking light-hearted rhymes in their own style with their own subject matter. However, I did find the music to lean too much towards the funk/soul side, as opposed to sample-based hip hop. It didn’t have to be 100% samples, but just use enough to stay true and pay homage to old-school hip hop (which you can’t convince me they weren’t aiming to do with that Sugarhill Gang jam in “Njoom 3am Te2rab”). If you ever want to get into Arabic rap, I would definitely recommend this album as a starting point.     

 4-“Strange Places” by Lazzy Lung

Starting out small and rapidly taking the scene by storm, this has definitely been Lazzy Lung’s year. They won the hearts of many with their indie pop-punk anthems everywhere they went from the green oval of AUB to the woods of Chbaniyye’. The album is enjoyable and explores several moods and tones. It is sort of a narrative concept album on frontman Allan Chaaraoui’s own experiences relocating from his native Canada and settling in Beirut; so it really is from the heart. I personally get a mid-90s post-grunge impression from the album, and I really dig this kind of stuff. We have no shortage of rock bands in Beirut, so it’s no easy feat to stand out, but Lazzy Lung have definitely left their mark.    

 3-“Peace is Overrated & War Misunderstood” by Scrambled Eggs

An album that made it just in time! Similarly to Lazzy Lung, Scrambled Eggs are one of the bands that have risen above in the sea of rock and roll with a post-punk style of equal parts harmony and dissonance. They, however, have been in the game for quite some time (about 12 years!), and this album is proof of that. The album does not feature any new material, but is in fact a collection of demos and unreleased tracks from 2006 to 2009. Though these tracks are not recent, you can still tell that you’re listening to Scrambled Eggs. Throughout these tracks, the band had practically perfected their trademark sound, while still pushing the envelope with experimentation. And this was a welcome return for them to standard compositions after almost a year of strictly improvised experimental performances. Here’s hoping forthcoming albums go above and beyond.

 2-“Khartech Aal Zaman/ L’Homme de Gauche” by Rayess Bek

Arabic rap trailblazer Rayess Bek’s last album was released 5 years ago, so this would mark a long anticipated return. After said album, he relocated to Paris, escaping the 2006 July War, and with that opened a new chapter in his career: forming the Rayess Bek Orchestra, a live hip hop outfit blending hip hop beats and rhythms with oriental melodies. And that’s exactly what this album is! This isn’t just oud with a drum loop here. It is a very well-executed multi-layered hybrid, almost on the verge of trip hop. I’m sure I don’t even need to go into details concerning the pertinence of Rayess’ rhymes and subject matters. The only thing I’m worried about is how he’s going to top this one.

 1-“Zeid and The Wings” by Zeid and The Wings

Look, to me, Zeid and The Wings is a live vehicle for Zeid Hamdan’s solo material. Anytime I talk about their studio work, I’m talking strictly about Hamdan. Trying to get back into electronic music after a long departure to rock (The New Government), Hamdan skipped through various collaborations (RGB, Doshka, Hiba el Mansouri… The Baalbak Project, A.K.A all three of ’em together!) That is until late 2009 when he assembled Zeid and The Wings. This 4-track EP was the result: a series of songs in Hamdan’s trademark style, fusing pop, rock, dub, electronic, and oriental, and with Hamdan himself singing the songs at long last. I really like juxtaposing genres (that’s why I listen to Beck!). Although, I do feel that he is holding back a bit with the beats (where are the breakbeats? Where are the glitches?), and that creates excess poppiness, which is something I prefer in healthy doses. Other than that, a fine taste of the full album to come.

 Honorable Mention: “Tasjeelat Moutafarriqa” by OkyDoky & Radio KVM

While this product is not exactly a meticulously assembled piece of work that shows their full potential, but instead a collection of live recordings, it shows you both how diverse they are with their breeds of electronic music and also how flawlessly they execute their compositions live. Got me all giddy for studio-produced stuff…

 

 Top 5 Performances of 2010:

 5- OkyDoky and Radio KVM – Dany’s (December 28, 2010)

Photo by: May Abi Samra

A last minute inclusion! Not that this show was particularly spectacular (it was), but it was the only one I saw this year. I had heard their recordings, some of which were live (the majority were I assume) and was impressed by the duo’s precision and exactness. But really, I would have believed they had just recorded the tracks from their software and added in some crowd noises later for all I knew… until I actually saw them live. There was energy, there was that precision, and there was improvisation, especially from their constant companion AA the Preacherman who would freestyle to the beats. Hell, there was even an electro cover; a fucking note-for-note, beat-for-beat, cover. Only in this show will you hear a rap about titties over “Fuck The Pain Away” by Peaches. Also, seeing them live, you really appreciate their creativity with technology, since no one ever said that the purpose of a touchscreen MIDI controller was specifically to control the pitch/speed of a sound thus creating a turntable scratch noise, but with a bit of creativity, that’s how it was used that night. New Year’s Resolution: See more of them in 2011. 

4-Rayess Bek – Walimat Warde’ (April 24, 2010)

Photo by: Me

You may be wondering “Why not the performance he did with the full band at Samir Kassir Garden?” Well I don’t know, it just didn’t have the same energy and mood as the Walimat Warde’ performance with flutist Nayssam Jalal. The place was packed. The crowd was interactive. It was the day before the Laique Pride March! If that’s not the time for politically critical Arabic rap, I don’t know when is. But also, this was supposed be Rayess Bek making a comeback after many years away from Lebanon and doing a couple of shows, before returning to Paris. It was a chance not to be missed! But then he played 5 more other shows… The whole rarity of it faded away, but it was still worth it.  

 3-Scrambled Eggs – The Basement (December 23, 2010)

Photo by: Khaled AngelRock Merheb

Just in the nick of time! After playing nothing but improvised noise for a whole year (since February to be precise), they made a return to their roots in honor of the release of their latest album. This was the best I have ever seen them. I swear. All the other times I’ve seen them play in their standard post-punk style, they seem moody and disconnected from the crowd (to be fair, these other times are just 2 or 3). But this time there was energy between them and with the audience. Charbel Haber and Tony Elieh would simultaneously jump like maniacs, Haber would joke with the crowd, and song dedications were made (happy birthday George Wassouf). If you have not seen Scrambled Eggs like this, then you have not seen Scrambled Eggs. 

 2- The Incompetents – Hamra Streets Festival (September 11, 2010)

Photo by: Beirut.com

The Incompetents always win me over by keeping it fresh, rearranging their compositions and using a variety of instruments in the process. Sometimes they performed as a duo, sometimes a trio, sometimes a full 4-piece band. In this particular performance, they unveiled their turbo-set. Every song was electrified and brought back to life (kind of like Frankenstein’s monster… song). “Bullets Gently Dancing Over My Head” was executed live with the use of a loop-pedal! “Bullets Gently Flying Over My Head” was disco-cized! Their reinterpretation of Tom Waits’ “God’s Away On Business” was still as abrasive as ever! The only thing they’re incompetent at is being stale.     

 1-Mashrou3 Leila – Byblos International Festival (July 9, 2010)

Photo by: StarScene (Daily Star)

I don’t care if a billion eyes roll as they read this! I know hype is an ugly word, but by God they lived up to it all that night! Mashrou3 Leila didn’t get to play Byblos just by being charming, they put a lot of effort to get there and it shows. The songs were executed flawlessly, and they didn’t just play their whole album and wave good night. They played the whole album AND brand new songs (also flawlessly performed) AND a fucking Arabic reworking of “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz who would be taking the stage later that month. There was immense energy and emotion throughout the entire thing. The prime minister even came out for it! I think the success of this performance proved to the whole country that alternative music in Lebanon is something to be aware of and that it can be just as good as any international act. 

 Honorable Mention: Zeid and The Wings – The Basement (August 27, 2010)

Photo by: Tanya Traboulsi

Ok, so this could not be a proper entry, because I didn’t even stay the full duration of this particular gig (and it really was good), but Zeid Hamdan had completely reworked his approach to live performance this year (with Hiba, with The Wings, with the Leka@Eka3 project, Kazamada) and I admired that. He was improvising more and incorporating more live instrumentation, though on a minimal level, like mouth harp, tambourine, melodica, etc… As for The Wings, I think they were a success. They brought Hamdan’s solo material to new levels live. The backing vocalists even add percussion (Yasmeen Ayyashi plays bass sometimes as well). Bachir Saade’s wind-instrument addition also adds a bit of variety. It’s definitely something worth watching.

 

  Top 5 Music Videos of 2010:

 5-“Fog el Nakhel” by Hibe el Mansouri (Directed by Pedros Temizian)

Aesthetically, the whole video is magnificent, from the textures used in the stop-motion animation to the soft lighting in the room. It’s nice to see two mediums in the same video as well.

 4-“Disposable Valentine” by The Incompetents (Directed by Wissam Charaf)

This video is not for the album version of the song, but for a live recording. I liked the simplicity and innocence behind it and also how it can be interpreted both as a fictional story about a person with a dream or a sort of dramatic retelling of Serge Yared’s own real-life experience with the band. It manages to be silly but at the same time quite deep.  

 3-“Raksit Leila” by Mashrou3 Leila (Directed by Jad Sarout, Chadi Aoun & Yasmine Sarout)

Having the idea to use split-screen effects is alone great, but pulling it off is amazing. The behind-the-scenes video that was posted gives you an idea of just how precise and intricate the whole process was. Even the scenes with just the band fooling around are significant, they show the inner spirit of the group: just dancing in the rain, playing with a punctured snare drum, nonchalantly watching the waves gradually bring a colossal eggplant closer and closer to shore which will inevitably be crushing everything in its path. You know, fun stuff.     

 2-“Fasateen” by Mashrou3 Leila (Directed by Diane Farah & Jowe Harfouche)

Another one for Mashrou3. This video is one big beautiful allegory. There’s symbolism from the beginning to the end (well, I’m not sure about the credits footage…) It expresses disappointment in love and marriage with each scene presenting a band member being frustrated with a certain aspect of marriage. What else do I have to say? It’s just very simple but at the same time extremely meaningful.

 1-“General Suleiman” by Zeid and The Wings (Directed by Gigi Rocatti)

This is a true masterpiece. The video highlights several aspects of Beirut, mainly focusing on common folk; from children playing soccer, to construction workers, to Capoeiristas, to sports car owners, to ripped elderly men. It’s just a whole new way of looking at something we know so well already. And it got a lot of publicity for this too, both locally and internationally. I would proudly refer foreigners curious to see Beirut to it; it’s an ambassador in music video form.

While we’re on the subject of this video, could somebody please explain this to me:

 

Top 5 Promising Acts for 2011:

 5-Shaba

Shaba is a band that made only a couple of appearances this year, including one at Fete de la Musique. These young ladies sing critical songs in Arabic about several unpleasant social issues, usually related to relationships and love. These songs are sung to acoustic folk rock. The only thing standing in the way of them making significant impact is exposure. They perform sparsely, they have yet to make recordings of their current material (to this day, the only thing you have to go by are acoustic guitar-vocals-only demos), and they supposedly have a music video ready for uploading which has yet to be heard from. If they can push themselves just a bit, this can turn from an extracurricular activity to something the public will take notice of. 

 4-Adonis

Most of you probably have no idea who I’m talking about. Adonis is a band that just made their debut performance this month (December 18th) in Walimat Warde’. Their style is not exactly my cup of tea, but I think it qualifies as alternative and we’ve heard similar things before, so why not? And I’m certain there’s an audience for it. The sound is a blend of oriental music and rock, jazz, and classical music, with Arabic lyrics (but not exactly in the colloquial style of Mashrou3 Leila). Though they don’t have their big wildfire hit yet, they’ve firmly established themselves stylistically, and given time, something should come of them.

 3-The Passive Standouts

I haven’t gotten the opportunity to see The Passive Standouts live, but this trio is certainly doing something right. They could quite possibly be the heirs to the Lebanese punk rock throne as they are now carrying the torch and helping keep the genre alive in the scene. Unlike Scrambled Eggs, they play pure punk, though with tiny hints of funk and reggae. Their songs are well composed and stay true to the punk sound. I really can’t elaborate much more; they’re catchy fast-paced songs, what more do you want?

 2-Jad Atoui

No, not Tarek Atoui, but the other Atoui, his younger brother. Jad Atoui is an electronic musician specializing in IDM, drum and bass, glitch, and ambient. He has been working on material for quite some time and has only recently begun presenting it live alongside other electronic acts such as Munma and Oky Doky & Radio KVM. He is also a gifted beatboxer, with a wide vocal repertoire, applying live effects, and occasionally minimal instrumentation (i.e. harmonica). Already he has an album’s worth of material (which I have not fully heard) so keep your eyes peeled for the lad.    

 1-Wled el Balad

This has most definitely been a good year for this bunch. Not that they haven’t been steadily achieving success in the recent years, but the Hamra Streets Festival was when they truly won the hearts of the public with their light-hearted and witty Arabic rock songs (which remind me of the work of Munir Khauli). Frontman Mohamad Hodeib’s onstage charisma, crowd interaction, and singing style definitely make the band worth seeing live. They released their first demo CD earlier this month, but I have yet to acquire a copy, though a sample has been made available online and it sounds interesting. Musically, their style covers a lot of ground, from rock to jazz to reggae. I think you ought to look out for them, because they’re more ready now than they’ve ever been to strike.    

 Honorable Mention: The Revolution of Ants

 They are basically an Indian music jam ensemble, consisting of Vahan Papazian playing sitar or other Eastern string instruments to synthesized electronic beats joined by percussionists and sometimes a vocalist, a flutist, a bassist; the sky’s the limit!  But the more I saw them perform, the more I realized that this musical diversity they had wasn’t being exploited to its full potential, they desperately lacked structure and focus. Each time, they would just jam… aimlessly. During the Hamra Streets Festival however, they did present some songs with lyrics and titles, which means they are steadily gravitating towards precise compositions. If they manage to come up with a handful of songs, getting an electronic music or hip hop producer onboard to record them and add some beats and effects would result in a product like no other in Lebanon, I promise. Do it!

 

Top 5 Venues to Avoid in 2011:

 5- The Gator Room

The way those things stare at you open-mouthed with those glazed eyes, totally distracts from the performance…

 4- The Attic

Worst Anne Frank theme-restaurant I’ve seen all year!

 3- Hall of Fuckstice

Dressing the strippers up like Wonder Woman did not make this any more or less a “super-nightclub”.

 2- My grandmother’s grave

Seriously, not cool guys

 1-Dany’s

Immobilized? Trapped? Choking and weezing? Eyes burning? Must be hell. Oh, no, it’s Dany’s. Small room downstairs, smaller performance space, poor- wait scratch that- health-code violating ventilation. On the plus side, there’s no cover charge. All you have to do is order something, which isn’t that glorious a policy when you don’t drink and end up having to buy a Pepsi for triple its price, but that’s my own problem. For the love of God Dany’s, don’t host any more gigs till you renovate that dungeon…

 

But really, this was a very fruitful year and I’d like to thank everyone who got out there and did their thing. I don’t intend to discourage anyone by excluding them from these psuedo-relevant rankings, only to express some views. I would say this year was huge step forward, so let’s take it to the next level in 2011. Happy New Year Everybody!

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