In the opening seconds of The Arabic Room, it’s as though Mephisto Halabi snaps his fingers and instantly transports us to his childhood home in Lebanon. Hypnotic chants and rhythms repeat before the dial is turned and a soothing voice turns up for a few moments before the dynamite explodes. Halabi is the moniker used by Philadelphia multi-instrumentalist and composer Julius Masri and on The Arabic Room, the heat is turned all the way up.
Masri explains that “‘The “Arabic Room’ of the title refers to the sitting room in my childhood home that was decked out in hyper orientalist exoticism, mashing together furniture, fixtures, paintings from all over the Arabic speaking world.” Sonically this is reflected in all the spaces of the album, from the aforementioned samples that open the record to the different scales he explores, the diversity in sound, and the overall atmosphere throughout. Opener “Watch on the Orient Pt. 1” is pure fire. Masri’s layered rhythms are explosive, jumping out of the speakers in a cathartic push while the fuzz-heavy guitar goes full shred. The riff is huge. Lurking in distant shadows is a snake winding through an endless desert aiming straight at us on the back of this aural wave.
Throbbing beats scratch out 4/4 blast zones while electronic leads don’t just go off the rails, they bring the whole damn track with them on “Rana Ransom Dance Floor Crasher.” Elements of harsh noise grate the surface, but the whole time Masri is bringing the dance floor straight to hell. Those leads, though, are demonically catchy. Damn. “Live Station Identification Broadcast From The Centrale” swims deep in synth-infused oceans, too, but this is the deepest part of the deep end. Bass-heavy passages etch polymetric shapes into the sand, constantly shifting and impossible to pin down. Microtonal transfers glide effortlessly, Masri’s arrow pointed forward confidently at all times. It’s hypnotic in the best way, expansive at its heart.
The thing about The Arabic Room the sets it apart from so many other great records this year is in its scope. Masri left no stone unturned as he brings the ‘hyper oriental exoticism’ to life. Following the droning, ritualistic sound collage of “Killer In The Sky” comes the bright resonance of the hammered dulcimer-heavy “The New Sandy Bull Shit.” It sparkles like silver in the noonday sun, full of burning light and saturated with ecstatic joy. Masri’s drumming is the glue, solid and flowing like a river parching the wilted tones and bringing it all to life. It’s an absolute jewel.
Bringing it to a close, “Watch On The Orient Pt. 2” revisits the lit fuse of the opener, toning it down ever so slightly as the moon rises over the ruins Masri leaves behind. If salons like these are common fixtures to host and entertain guests in Lebanese homes, The Arabic Room succeeds at every level. This is easily one of my favorite albums of 2021. Incredible stuff.