Various Artists

Spiritual Beauty: Imaginal Orient

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Accuse bassist and producer Bill Laswell of artistic colonialism or cultural dilettantism and he'll probably just shrug his shoulders. His attitude has always been that he makes the music he likes, and that purists and defenders of tradition can feel free to go jump in a lake if they don't like it. And yet it's hard to escape the feeling that what he and his cohorts are calling "spiritual" on this album is really just exotic. None of this music is devotional or even meditational; it's just Eastern. But hip Westerners have been equating the East with "real" spirituality (as opposed to the shallow Western kind) for the last century, and no Westerner is hipper than Laswell. Get past that minor irritant and you'll find yourself immersed in a kind of beauty that may or may not be spiritual, but is certainly musically powerful. On "Amorphous," Middle Eastern percussion and ululating female vocals are couched in atmospheric synthesizer and sometimes bumped around by Laswell's typically dark and ravishing basslines, while "Bouhala" features a nice juxtaposition of modern dub rhythms and Arabic rap. "Whirling" is a showcase for Omar Faruk Tekbilek, who plays a flute-like instrument that is probably a nay, though the annoyingly coy musician credits don't shed much light on the matter. One of the loveliest tracks is Simon Shaheen's interpretation of Mohammed Abdul Wahab's "Theme and Variations," performed on the oud with rapturously beautiful orchestral accompaniment. This is an exceptionally lovely collection; too bad it provides so little background information about the artists. If you want to explore further, you're basically on your own.

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