Hashshashin – Badakhshan

After five years with the blog, there are a number of posts I still look back on fondly. My interview with Lachlan R. Dale still ranks among my all-time favorites for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, was the ability to connect with the man behind two of my favorite modern labels: Art As Catharsis and Worlds Within Worlds. Both rosters consistently grow to include exceptional, forward-thinking bands from across the musical spectrum. Secondly, the “world music” focus of World Within Worlds prompted an insightful exchange in our interview about the genre tag itself. I encourage you to read Lachlan’s full response, but here’s a small snippet:

It seems dismissive to categorise the various universes of non-Western music under the term “world music.” It smacks of Euro-centricity, elitism and ignorance, and it makes me uncomfortable. But then, my view on genre-labels more generally is that they’re a necessary evil; they serve a pragmatic purpose. I’ll happily use them in other contexts to help anchor listeners in the sea of words and sounds they’re forced to swim in every day. … I can see that education is going to be a necessary piece of the puzzle. Where I can, I am going to be quite explicit about the traditions we’re representing.

I chose this context to open the review because it’s incredibly relevant to how Hashshashin approach “world music” on Badakhshan. The trio (which features Lachlan on a whole host of instruments) has crafted a release that is incredible based on its own merits, while also serving as a reverent, informed celebration of cultural traditions throughout the Middle East. The record – named after a region of Tajikistan bordering Afghanistan – features a transportive series of compositions that begin with a phenomenal fusion of progressive, psychedelic, and post-rock before blending in these musical elements seamlessly. This makes for one of the most transcendental and beautifully performed listening experiences you’ll encounter all year.

Footage from a trip Lachlan, filmmaker/photographer Conor Ashleigh, and their teams took through the Pamir and Badakhshan regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

I could rattle of several bands in the rock and metal scenes who have haphazardly incorporated various elements of “world music” into their music at one point or another, perhaps to appear deeper than their music actually is. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear musicians that care deeply about the cultures their music references, and more importantly, execute each composition with spot-on musicianship that should appeal to listeners regardless of their familiarity with these traditions.

Before diving into the track list, let’s take a moment to appreciate the number and variety of instruments the trio play on Badakhshan, beyond the standard guitar, drums/percussion, and bass lineup: Moroccan krakebs, frame drum, harmonium, didgeridoo, Irish bouzouki, Persian setar, Pamiri setor, Afghan rabab. I won’t pretend that I’m able to identify these instruments by ear, and the following analysis will reflect that. But the collective product of these instruments played together in harmony across the album is nothing short of stunning. It inspires further independent research to understand the traditions behind these instruments and the music they’ve produced over their centuries in existence.

These elements are immediately apparent, as Badakhshan commands listeners’s attention right from the onset. “Qom” opens the proceedings with a hypnotic drone, created by what sounds like an Afghan rabab and backing ambiance. It effectively sets the mood and transitions perfectly into “Crossing the Panj.” The track is the first of many encapsulations of Hashshashin’s mastery of synthesizing atmospheric rock with the various musical traditions mentioned above. Their performance sounds like a much more energetic version of Om‘s hypnotic drones, coupled with the intensity of modern rock bands like Town Portal or The Messthetics. There’s a fluidity to the band’s playing that ebbs and flows like a traditional post-rock song, albeit with constant, subtle progressions and rich, textured atmospheres.

“Death In Langar” begins by following another seamless transition, continuing much of the same themes bolstered from some more resonant, unconventional percussion in the background. The transition bolsters the dynamic effect of a guitar-driven focus on “Panj” shifting into what sounds like a sitar dominated affair. It’s a beautiful blend and evolution that further illuminates the depth present on the album.

Last month, we had the pleasure of premiering “Shrines of the Wakhan,” which continues expanding the album’s soundscapes. The strings range from melancholic tremolos and ringing chords to heavier, powerful riffs that flirt with Baroness and Mastodon vibes. It’s a powerful, dynamic listen that remains consistently engaging throughout its nearly nine-minute run time.

As alluded to above, one of Hashshashin’s greatest strengths across the record is the trio’s ability to pivot and transition with natural flow and development. After some of the album’s heaviest, rock-oriented moments of “Shrines of the Wakhan,” the band transports the listener to the desert with the heavily Middle Eastern-themed “Sarhadd.” With gorgeous strings and chord progressions, the song evokes a myriad of emotions that range from soundtracking the night sky over a sleepy desert to soaring through and over the mountains dotting the skyline.

This element of vibrancy and natural development is perhaps most true on the album’s two closing behemoths, “The Taklamakan,” and “Then He Hid Himself In The Refining Fire.” The former track employs some syncopated math rock rhythms amid droning, pensive atmospheres, while the latter track pairs dazzling strings with creative playing techniques and effects. Both cap off the album with the band’s signature creativity and desire to constantly evolve their formula.

Though nearly an hour long, Badakhshan truly feels like it unravels within its own position in time and space. Hashshashin’s compositions are intoxicating and sonically decadent, allowing each track to capture the listener’s attention with a vice grip and dazzle them with new sonic horizons. Put more simply, Badakhshan is utterly fantastic. Whatever your prior knowledge and expectations of Middle Eastern music are, and no matter where you stand on the rock subgenres the band employs, Hashshashin have crafted a release with a level of excellence that’s difficult to criticize in any meaningful way. It’s the kind of record that only subsequent releases from the band might rival in quality.

Badakhshan is available now via Art As Catharsis and Small Pond.

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