“Faraj Suleiman – Once Upon a City” Album Review
First, let me thank Faraj. It’s thanks to the concert “Login” that he did back in 2013 that I decided to publicly publish my musical critique (or opinion). The reason was simple. I thought the concert was pointless. Yet I saw and heard people praising the “wonderful innovative musical work” displayed in the concert. I was furious! Is it possible that people really can’t see beyond technique? Am I too critical? Am I missing something?
Don’t be too judgmental – I thought to myself. You might like the new album. After all, four years passed since that concert.
I want this review to be closure. So I will begin with the things I found positive. Faraj Suleiman is a good pianist. There is no doubt about that. He has good technique, a wide spectrum of playing dynamics, relatively good emotion and a good sense of musical production. The album shows a pianist who is in full control over the keys of the keyboard, relentless of how hard and complicated the musical sentence. The band is also highly professional – Habib Shehadeh Hanna (Oud), Rami Nakhleh (Drums), and Shady Awidat (Bass Guitar) all gave an overall tight feeling to the album.
After listening to the album for the first time, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about writing this review anymore. I found the album a continuum to that 2013 concert – a display of repetitive riffs that players, each in turn, would solo over – a “jam session” of some sort. I listened to the whole album in a row and wrote my thoughts down. I thought to share my unedited notes as part of this review, but I believe it is best that I do not.
I decided to listen to the album again and see if my opinion changes – whether I develop a certain connection to the melodies, to the ideas displayed. I must say that the theory that says that the more you listen to a musical track the more you relate to it is true (The same old song: The power of familiarity in music choice, Morgan K. Ward & Joseph K. Goodman & Julie R. Irwin, Published online: 29 May 2013). I found the album much more appealing the second time, as I had less expectations than I had in the first listen, hence having a clearer state of mind while listening.
That said, I still believe the album lacks a few qualities. If I were to describe the album in one simple sentence, I would say it’s a linear modulation over a repetitive mantra. Most of the tracks could be compressed into a 1 minute track and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference (the last song, Once Upon a City, is the strongest example for that – it simply ends with a fade out. No bottom line, no points made).
The album consists of 8 tracks which, between most, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference. There are little stories being told – no phrases or sentences, just a constant repetition of riffs over a generally constant rhythm and bass line. Solos come in, solos end, etc. . The peak of this kind of structure was a drum solo in the track “tango”, where it felt like a live performance in which the band was just giving the drummer a background for a generic solo. Sometimes the melodies felt like an etude, a repetition of a short line with minor variations, creating very little interest in what’s coming next.
Trying to further understand what the reason for this disconnection I felt was, I tried comparing this album to music I find close in style. Two examples are Seven Days of Falling by Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.) and Seven Seas by Avishai Cohen (joke about “seven” appearing in both tracks goes here). Both compared tracks have one thing in common that is different than Suleiman’s – their musical sentences give you an opportunity to absorb them, connect to them, contemplate over them, and have ideas. Faraj’s “riffs”, and I am intentionally calling them riffs instead of motifs or phrases, are on a hurry. They end before you realize, as a listener, they began, not giving you a chance to relate to them. Furthermore, Suleiman’s tracks lack diversity. It seems like the tracks are all structured over the same pattern – a riff plays, changes in dynamic / pitch / instrument, or becomes a background for a solo (much like rock songs). There are no conclusions, no development of the story being told. The riffs do develop sometimes (like in the case of the final fast part in the first track, Eleven and Twelve) just not enough to make a true musical impact further than that of the rhythmic and dynamic change.
Two outstanding tracks in the album are “Benenath the Walnut tree” and “Thress Steps”. That said, although “Beneath the Walnut Tree” has a catchy, pleasant melody, it still fails to develop beyond itself. It feels like a loop (I’m starting to feel this review is a loop too). Three steps is simply energetic and lively, with a wonderful mix of jazz, rock and Arab music motifs. A new sound is found in this track, and I praise Faraj and the band for it.
In a home piano masterclass, back in 2001, the renowned musician Saleem Abboud Ashqar told a story:
A music theory teacher opens the first lesson for the semester. He puts down his bag, takes out a pencil and a pencil sharpener. The class is silent, waiting. He sharpens his pencil, examines it, sharpens it again, makes sure it’s perfectly sharpened, blows at it to clean it, checks it again, sharpens it better, looks at it with appreciation. With one big blast, the teacher then smashes the pencil against the table. The students are in shock! “This is the first and most important lesson you will ever learn in music” he then says to them. “It’s all about one thing. Building up expectations, and then breaking them”.
This is precisely my problem with this album. It simply is too predictable.