Viscerally raw yet dripping with mood, this new album from the Iraqi band Mulla hits you hard and fast with all the glory of classic second wave black metal but with something unique added to the mix.
Mulla’s album title is in Arabic and reads as follows مَوْلَى (translated through Google I get a number of results, ‘sire’, ‘lord’ and ‘chief’ being the primary ones). I appreciate a black metal band that does not lean on Satanism to get their point across and if I can glean anything from the album title, the connotations are of strength and power, not of nihilism. Their Bandcamp page is in Arabic so I did a fair amount of translating to get context around the music. In the album description, you will find a couple of sentences in Arabic that when translated come out as: “We are not a terrorist group or religious fanatics. We have just tried to give you a musical feel for the frightening atmosphere of the Middle East these days, with all the modern stereotypes. If it felt like it, then we did it all right.”
I found this strange and frankly a little sad that this needed to be stated but I can understand with geopolitics being what they are, that the band felt the need to put this disclaimer here (one of the songs discussed later might be the reason for this). I can barely imagine what it is like to grow up in an environment so fraught with war and for this reason, Mulla has probably the strongest case for making music in the genre of black metal. Where other bands write stories about wars they’ve only dreamed of experiencing, Mulla has probably had first-hand experience of conflict. That being said, nothing about their music gave me the impression that they have any political views, and honestly, with most black metal it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear what the hell is going on anyway (hence why Nazi bands end up sneaking onto playlists where they don’t belong).
Translating the song titles did not give me much more insight into the band’s motives. When translated to English the titles seem to come out as “Can”, “My God”, “From the Soul”, “From U.S.”, and “The Night”. Pretty innocuous titles and well suited to this raw and simple second wave sound. Not to harp on the lyrical content too much, but after some reading of the lyrics, they affirmed my initial belief that their music is more about empowerment than it is about nihilism and anti-religion. In fact, the lyrics for “My God” (يا إلهي) almost seem to be praising Allah (probably why they ended up putting the disclaimer in the album notes). Some of the lyrics do touch on negative, more traditional black metal imagery; however, they forgo some of the fatalism and seem to lean towards a more positive outlook from my summation.
Musically the band is not exactly breaking many boundaries. I did enjoy the album, though I would not say it stands out in many ways other than the lyrical content and location. This is not to disparage the music as a whole. I would still say the experience is suitably heavy, aggressive, and harsh/pleasant on the ears, just as this style of black metal should be. My point being, for the most part, the music does not sound specifically Middle-Eastern except for a couple of guitar leads and a sample heard at the end of track two. The closest thing matching this description would be the final track, “The Night” (الليل), which is presented on solo electric guitar. In this piece, the guitarist is playing some form of harmonic minor or an Arabic scale but in an improvised style. I loved the sound of this track but it did also make me wish I heard more leads like this with the full band. As is expected of this style of metal, the playing is not particularly technical and musically it is not trying to push the envelope. The riffs are simple and chromatic, jarring yet groovy enough to keep you moving your head. Song structures are repetitive and very reminiscent of early Mayhem albeit with slightly better production.
I find this album hard to review in many ways because although I find it refreshing that this band is bringing content, imagery, and a vocabulary to the genre that is in desperate need of something new, I also feel there is a missed opportunity to bring more unique harmonic qualities to the mix. To be blunt I do not find the music particularly different once you take out the context. Besides the odd guitar leads that are clearly imitating traditional Arabic melodies, the music comes across as classic black metal (which is probably the aim). At the end of track two, “My God” (يا إلهي), you can hear a sample of what seems to be the recording of distant explosions, possibly recorded by the band themselves. I do think there is a missed opportunity here to bring in more sounds from Arabic culture; however, that being said, nothing is worse than adding gimmicky world music elements to your record and overdoing it. Mulla is still new so they do have time to add some nuance to their sound if they go onto to record anything else in the future.
Where the music really shines is texturally. The quality of the music weaves a tapestry of terror and confusion. An exhibition that is the living embodiment of shell shock. The music is both majestic yet horrifying at the same time. Not cerebral horror but visceral impending horror, so real you can touch it. While listening I can picture a hot, dry night, surrounded by sand while the sky is lit with explosions. You await your fate, prostrate, nearing cataclysm, an inevitable death. On this element alone the album is worth recommending.
I do not think this album will be one I keep coming back to. Nevertheless, it can still be praised for its boldness to try something new. I look forward to a new release with a hopefully evolved sound in the coming years.
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You can acquire a digital or hard copy (CD only) of مَوْلَى via Mulla’s Bandcamp page.