In 1927, German philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin began an essay about his early experiments with psychotropic drugs, eventually published under the title On Hashish. Egyptian-Canadian free improv guitarist Sam Shalabi took this essay and other writings by Benjamin as his conceptual starting point for this wholly instrumental album. Shalabi's Middle Eastern heritage is always an aspect of his work, and the implications of hashish (which among other things is the root of the word "assassin") speak to that side of his musical personality as well. That said, On Hashish is not a conventionally "druggy" album in the sense of either '60s-style psychedelia or the more recent improv work of acts like Acid Mothers Temple or Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember's various outlets. These three tracks have more in common with the fiercely intellectual constructs of some of the Fluxus-associated artists or the European free improv community centered around AMM. Late in the epic 27-minute opening track, "Outside Chance (Dreamfangs)," a fairly conventional full-band improvisation suddenly mutates into a frog-like chorus of sampled voices distorted and chopped into meaninglessness, which itself slowly dissolves into percussion mimicking the sound of a gentle rain and trailing off into an extended period of near silence prior to a five-minute coda for bass, piano, and seemingly random clicks and whirrs. Second track "Soot," the shortest at just under six minutes, features a Shalabi guitar solo, distorted and apparently sped up, buried under an ever-growing cacophony of atonal horn blasts and taped voices sped up to the timbre of chattering cartoon mice, sounding less like a combination of Walter Benjamin and hashish than Carl Stalling and bad acid. After that sonic onslaught, final track "The Wherewithall" sounds almost reflective in its ever-shifting layers of John Cage-like amelodic piano runs and tape-manipulated distortion and noise. Even by Shalabi's usual uncompromising standards, parts of On Hashish are tough sledding, but overall, its well-paced dynamics and sonic variety prevent the listener fatigue that accompanies many free improv efforts.
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AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason