Syria is seldom in the news for its music scenes, nor is it often mentioned in conversation outside of discussions on war, terrorism, religion and foreign policy. There is something undeniably inspiring, therefore, about the meteoric rise to prominence of Assyrian artist Omar Souleyman. For any 50-year-old man to become an overnight sensation within the electronic dance music scene is bizarre enough in itself, let alone a wedding singer, clad in a keffiyeh, hailing from a war-torn nation. However, for me and many other music fans, it’s certainly uplifting to not simply think of Syria as the conflict-ridden country constantly covered on the news, but also as the birthplace of one of dance music’s most buoyant and colourful breaths of fresh air to have captured the hearts of a worldwide audience over the course of the past decade. Primarily playing a synthesized and electrified interpretation of the traditional Arab folk dance genre of dabke, Souleyman has around 500 albums to his name — the vast majority of which were recorded at his nuptial performances and gifted to the newly-weds as a wedding present, before being reproduced and sold locally — but it was only after being displaced by the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 that the musician began to make waves in the West. Playing several festivals that year, including Glastonbury, Souleyman also found his remixes of Crystalline and Thunderbolt from Björk’s eighth album Biophilia, as well as an original composition, being featured on the Icelandic art pop singer’s remix series, entitled The Crystalline Series. Now, instead of sharing festival stages with MGMT and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Souleyman finds himself signed to Mad Decent for his newest studio album, To Syria, With Love, alongside some of contemporary pop, hip hop and EDM’s most pervasive producers, including Major Lazer, Diplo, Jack Ü and DJ Snake. As for his brand of amplified dabke, however, Souleyman’s formula remains largely untouched, rather the artist doubles down on the sleek sounds and riveting rhythms of the previous material of his to have been brought to a Western audience. Indeed, To Syria, With Love is certainly an exceptionally exuberant and vibrant release for Souleyman, but it also runs the risk of being so caught up on crafting mesmerising dance tunes that it lacks a much-needed dose of diversity. With only the shortest of the seven cuts from the album seeing the musician substitute his usual, sunny, sprightly style of electronics for a more mellow and meditative piece, the Achilles’ heel of To Syria, With Love is its one-dimensionality. This being said, however, strict adherence to a blueprint that yields results as invigorating as the erratic dance mixes featured on Souleyman’s newest record can be forgiven, for the most part, as the enjoyability of these dabke bangers is rarely played down as a result.
One personnel change of note that is important to mention is the absence of Souleyman’s chief DJ and collaborator Rizan Sa’id on To Syria, With Love, with the album’s arsenal of synthesizers and drum machines being helmed instead by Hasan Alo. With this latest album lacking Souleyman’s strong right arm, who has proven to be just as pivotal to his rise to fame as the artist himself, Alo has some big shoes to fill, but, for the most part, he takes up the baton with a compelling degree of his own flare. The erratic, left-field rhythms of the opening track, Ya Boul Habar, for instance, support the dancing mijwiz synth tones with the same searing pizzazz as previous Souleyman songs, whilst the abrupt outbreaks of handclaps and backing chants inject the mix with even more ebullient energy. Likewise, the intertwining, call-and-answer structure of the synth lines and Souleyman’s singing sees both of these components flutter around the Phrygian dominant scale, whilst set against the bouncy, major backdrop, to craft a bright and lively sonic palette.
The intensely fast, techno-tinged tempo of Ya Boul Habar carries onto the second track, Ya Bnayya, but with a hefty kick up the backside, as a frenetic, polyrhythmic percussion solo introduces the song, before the same blistering mijwiz patches emerge, this time reaching the steep heights of a scorching, distorted guitar solo. However, with these two high-octane dabke mixes being back-to-back in the tracklisting, it becomes quite clear rather early on that To Syria, With Love is somewhat of a one-trick pony. Whilst these two tracks are both as spirited and dynamic as one would hope to hear from an Omar Souleyman record, they also both play so close to the same territory, as do many of the cuts in the tracklisting, that much of the record can breeze by, feeling like an extended club mix, if one wasn’t paying close attention. This has certainly been a reservation I have had with previous material from Souleyman, but it seems to be particularly apparent on To Syria, With Love, and this may partially be as a result of Sa’id’s absence. Whilst Alo infuses many of these tracks with an appropriate amount of spirit and stamina, as the relentless, blazing synth leads burn through five, six or seven minutes of high-energy dance beats like they’re nothing, it seems that Sa’id would have put more of an emphasis on subtleties in dynamics and tone, as a means of keeping things fresh, in a way that doesn’t ever completely come to fruition on To Syria, With Love. Such instances of satisfying shading will appear here and there, such as on the notably slower Aenta Lhabbeytak, which is supported by some grandiose electric piano embellishments, rich acoustic guitar chords and the occasional smattering of a live drum fill, or in the case of the bubbly techno tones of Khayen. Even with these examples, however, it’s still the same interlaced mijwiz patches and trilling vocals that drive the compositions, making To Syria, With Love somewhat structurally limited.
Despite its one, underlying issue of one-dimensionality, however, To Syria, With Love is an incredibly entertaining listen. There is no shortage of hectic, electrifying dabke jams across the album and, whilst the fact that they are all largely cut from the same cloth may make the record lose steam towards its backend, in small bursts, it can make for an enlivening, and at times dizzying, listening experience. Similarly, even if the sonic variation on display throughout the course of the tracklisting is limited to some extent, the general sound of To Syria, With Love is brilliantly bright, bouncy and bubbly and, being a dance record, this alone makes the album undoubtedly effective for its primary purpose of stimulating the spirit and animating the dance floor. Overall, therefore, whilst somewhat restricted by its lack of fully actualised variety, the sheer power and energy of To Syria, With Love alone make it an incredibly invigorating and intoxicating experience.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10