The postmodern mind — and that’s where we live, like it or not — delights in juxtapositions. Particularly when they bring together two unlikely infatuations, as when your favorite band covers your other favorite band’s song — and you’re almost always disappointed, amirite? Of which more below.
Exhibit One: When I was just a nerdy kid reading medieval adventure stories, not yet clued in to Orientalism and its discontents, my imagination was captured by the figure of Rashid ad-Din Sinan, better known in that milieu as The Old Man of the Mountain, perhaps the most notorious leader of the Assassin sect (who bequeathed that term to the English language). I was particularly taken by a scene in Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader in which Al Mualim (as he was also known) orders one of his unblinking followers to leap from the open window of his impregnable mountain eyrie.
Exhibit Two: the exploding popularity of the neo-Italo Disco sound, centred around labels like Italians Do It Better — a phenomenon that brought joy to the heart of a present-day music nerd (yours truly), who’s old enough to remember when liking the 1980s was the ultimate in shameful admissions, and who therefore had to take shelter in end-of-the-night goth club DJ sets.
So when I heard that Professor Genius, a.k.a. Jorge Velez — known for the Italo-influenced dance beats he’s created on labels like IDIB — was recording a concept album based on the Assassins mythology, my imagination ran libidically wild. Where the adoption of Islamic and Arabic influences in dance music has too often been geared toward an exoticist, cocktail-lounge downtempo-ism, I thought: Now for something completely different. Would it feature vocodered samples from Sufi mystics? Threatening pillow talk sung in a slightly off-key European accent? Daf meets D.A.F.? Sadly (and even despite the presence of bonus remixes), the answer is a resounding negative.
From no joy to killjoy: there’s an etymological argument that the term “assassin” (Ḥashshāshīn) is taken from “hashish,” the drug that Marco Polo alleged was used to brainwash Assassin adherents. And my mention above of Middle Eastern dub proponents like Badawi might suggest that this is stoner music. But it’s quite the contrary: Assassins is more like the smooth desert from which a rocket launches to the cosmos than the rumble and skank of boulders and dried-up riverbeds. In being so, though, the project also slips past the ear; imagine a compilation of Muslimgauze’s most ambient moments. Unlike Bryn Jones’ project, there is no flavor here of the geo-political; the intriguing menace on tracks like “Merciful and Blessed” has the sensibility more of an exoticist Hans Zimmer soundtrack than a commentary on the new Crusades. Listening to “The Valleys of Paradise,” for example, one can almost see the standards fluttering, the sun winking from broadswords and scimitars.
On this journey — whether it’s conceived as an interstellar Arabic Space Opera (Oriento-Futurism?) or a rough track leading to a defile between dusty mountains — kosmische is our point of origin, ambient electronica (beaten or beatless) our trajectory. But the ruts are less rutting and more well-worn, the wheel glides in a familiar fashion. Conceptually, I remain intrigued; but, despite the panoramic landscapes called up by Assassins, considered as a standalone piece we might paradoxically say: “Yes record about it if you like or anything if you like but not there, there is no there there.”