A few years ago, Mashrou’ Leila were the fresh-faced newcomers to the Lebanese indie scene. Now, they’re dropping what could be the most influential indie Arab record of the decade.
Ibn el Leil, Leila’s fourth album, is a metaphorical fresh take on loss, love, and Arab society dressed in electropop with shades of subtle and nostalgic Middle Eastern influences. In Leila’s previous works, although ever-evolving and advancing, there was always this meld of folk-inspired, light classical rock, and that very Leila sound – that Leilan je ne sais quoi. But in Ibn el Leil, the bands strips away any traces of its old music and paves the album with a characteristically evocative and sizzling sound and aesthetic.
Where words are concerned, Hamed Sinno – the flamboyant, sass-tinged, outspoken front man of Mashrou’ Leila – does not disappoint. Ibn el Leil pulses with vibrant lyrical magic, a result of Sinno’s canny ability to capture mundane human experience in his songwriting so vividly, so exquisitely. In Ibn el Leil, Leila’s fourth LP, he abandons the revolutionary political trademark he was so praised for and immerses the album in a more personal light. The record carries a beautiful but not too heavy purple-ish prose, with a smart play of words often spun on lyrics, metaphors woven out of faraway mythological figures.
01. Aoede – Ibn el Leil opens with Aoede – Aoede: daughter of Zeus, one of the three original muses in Greek mythology; the muse of voice and song – a track that starts thick with funky eighties-inspired pop beats and quickly establishes itself as a misty, tranquil, dreamlike track: “Take the billow away from me,” Sinno sings, his voice almost unrecognizable in its foreign falsetto, “I am a prisoner of my mirror. Aoede! Aoede!” The violin, a very prominent figure in this record, snakes around Sinno’s vocals, ghostly and fluid, almost uncanny.
02. 3 Minutes – Undoubtedly the most pop-like piece on the record. “Tell me who to be to please you,” Sinno sings. It’s a somewhat shocking, in-your-face number: the transition into pop isn’t slow, gentle, graceful. It’s violent and sudden and the result – 3 Minutes – leaves one confused for a moment: is this good or bad? Is this better than their old material?
But 3 Minutes is a statement track more than anything else. Leila carries their shift of genres with a blunt opening: 3 Minutes is a confident statement of change. Sinno tackles celebrity status and expectations placed upon artists, playfully musing over what exterior the public (Arab society? Big and dominant record labels?) would like best.
03. Djinn – Continuing with that unapologetic, frank quality, Djinn is one of the darker and more sinister pieces of the album. Clever lyrics cut through gloomy music, a grim undertone of flippant self-destructiveness slithering underneath. Djinn speaks of drunken grief: it uses colorful metaphors to paint drowning one’s despair in alcohol, letting intoxication overflow anguish to the point of unconsciousness: “Berlin couldn’t stand, hand me and tear down the wall!”
04. Icarus – Poignant and bitter, and of course a contrast to its previous companion, Icarus – musically – is the most Middle Eastern track on the record. The violin is a leading figure here: it rises during the bridge as Sinno pauses between each line, nostalgically reminiscent of classical Arab songs; of Um-Kalthoum and Abd el-Halim Hafez; of that signature gesture where the singer would pause only to let the violin glide to its fanciful ups and downs before the singer charges again into his line.
05. Maghawir – The opening recalls Woodkid – A.K.A. French musician and film director Yoann Lemoine – but that’s about it. It’s theatrical and macabre, grisly and ghastly. The lyrics offer a social commentary whilst telling the story of two shootings occurring in Beirut within the same week, each resulting in the deaths of two young victims, both who were out celebrating their birthdays. In Sinno’s sharp-witted fashion, it also tackles police thuggery, authority abuse, attitudes toward Arab values such as pride and toward women in the Middle East. It slips into an addictive, dark instrumental towards the end as voices playfully echo throughout the song, “Shoop, shoop, they shot you.”
06. Kalaam (S/He) – Shadowy and cosmic, it opens with entrancing streaks of the violin, quickly slipping on a mystical feel. It addresses love, shame, taboos, and desire. “Where’s the shame in what you’re feeling,” Sinno croons, filled with sensuality. Personal and intimate, it dives in to slip into a very interesting outro, where Sinno toys around with basics of Arabic language – specifically, the feminine and masculine forms of words – to form a strange yet smart structure of lines: “Your language separates/your body separates/your language conjugates/your body conjugates.”
07. Tayf (Ghost) – Tayf runs with that bold iconic Leila defiant quality, recalcitrant and challenging. Opening with mellow and seductive clean-cut streaks of Leila’s trademark violin, Tayf quickly establishes itself as something else. From a lyrical point of view, this is the most revolutionary tune you will find in Ibn el Leil and the track the holds the most resemblance to Leila’s old words. Reminiscent of Wa Nuied (Raasük), Tayf discusses everything from homophopia and police brutality to authoritarian violence, drawing in references to poets of questionable sexualities and resistant wills for change in an environment where corruption heavily seeps.
08. Falyakon – Piano-ridden and whimsical, Falyakon is musically closer to 3 Minutes than that of the rest of the album. Falyakon offers a much needed up-jolt, and puts into melody what words cannot, and perfectly describes how you could feel happy and sad at the same time – or at least, how you could feel a projection of happiness, of false contentment. It’s hard not to sing along the catchy chorus, Sinno’s songwriting shining again in a quaint swirl of words: “Let it be, whatever is to be, I want to be, I am still standing; singing.”
09. Bint elKhandaq – A turmoil of anger, frustration, and most of all: truths. Feels more like fiction than the rest of the songs on the record. Sinno manages to capture the unspoken struggles of many women across the Middle East, and sings of a narrative too close to the heart. The song has more indie folk in it than pop or classical rock. It’s fiercely vivid and eloquent – both lyrically and musically.
10. Asnam (Idols) – Asnam is addictive and psychedelic-esque, spinning tales of icons and holy (/public?) figures, of false illusions and glassy realities, of blind followers and mindless minions and numb henchmen. Trance-like, Sinno’s voice twirls around idols and worship: tampered, echoed; worshiped, chanted. There are different types of worship, and this track toys around exactly with that, provoking more and more intriguing notions.
11. Sadalsuud – Gather around, gather around: there is 80s electronic music, there is a beautiful, beautiful Arab-esque violin that reminds you of theme songs of Egyptian/Levantine television series of the 90s and classic stages of Um-Kalthum. Mashrou’ Leila weaves an an unexpectedly wonderful Sinno-deprived two-minute instrumental that conjures images of Beiruti historical neighborhoods, a man with Yehia El-Fakharany’s smile playing an accordion in Khan el-Khalili, and vintage Levant/North Africa. An album highlight and a slow-burner that takes time to fully and truly appreciated.
12. Ashabi (Comrades) – From haunting chants of, “Son of the night!” to chill-inducing wordsmithery (“All week around, from nine to five, we’re dying / Make me forget myself, I want to be like Beirut”) accompanied with Sinno’s grim vocals, the song could be best described as “drunk softcore electronica.” The simple delivery of vocals fits the worn out aloof quality of the song. Although it could be considered Kalaam 2.0, Ashabi doesn’t feel unoriginal nor repeated, but rather like a sequel that develops an individual sound of its own with each listen.
From the violin to the melody, Leila captures nightlife, hollowing loneliness, and feelings that can’t be quite transmitted into language. Ashabi is simply a feeling: a lonely, hollowed-out, late-night feeling, surrounded by numb and glassy people.
13. Marrikh – Leave the best for the last. Prepare for goosebumps. Leila explores unfamiliar territories with Marrikh: the instrumental is stripped down, the violin trembles and shivers, Sinno vibrato quivers through blood, the song speaks of ups and downs and chastising hands and then finally – finally – Sinno’s voice shudders one last time before rocketing into a glorious high note. It’s sobering and raw; a mournful epilogue.
FAVORITE TRACKS: Icarus, Tayf, Maghawir, Asnam, Bint elKhandaq, Ashabi, Kalaam
LEAST FAVORITE TRACKS: None (̶a̶l̶t̶h̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶i̶f̶ ̶I̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶c̶h̶o̶o̶s̶e̶,̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶w̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶3̶ ̶M̶i̶n̶u̶t̶e̶s̶)̶