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Album review: Mashrou’ Leila’s ‘El Hal Romancy’

At first glance, there seems to be much in common between Beirut’s Mashrou’ Leila and Cairo’s Wust el-Balad – they’re both Arabic-language folk-rock bands, comprised of young(ish) members who are no strangers to political turmoil. They’ve both built exceptionally strong reputations based primarily on word of mouth, and they give energetic live performances, employing an impressively thorough ensemble of instruments. Both groups also recently released their sophomore efforts, but that’s where the comparisons come to a grinding halt. Whereas Wust el-Balad’s “Robabekya” was a bland, soul-sapping dud of an album, Mashrou’ Leila’s “El Hal Romancy” (The Solution is Romantic) is a firecracker – one that explodes with ideas, imagery, and fist-pumping anthems. In short, “El Hal Romancy” offers more of a jolt than the members of Wust el-Balad would if you tasered them.

Clocking in at a little under 20 minutes, and with only six songs, “El Hal Romancy” is more of an EP than a fully fledged album, yet it still feels like a complete – if maddeningly short – work. The secret lies in the structure, as well as the diversity on display. So confident are the members of Mashrou’ Leila of their compositions and the way they flow together, that they decided to give up a sixth of their album to a mood-setting introductory track, consisting solely of lovelorn wails and chirping birds. It hasn’t even fully faded out before the second track – and first real song – “Habibi” (My Love) punches the grille right off your speakers.

For the uninitiated, “Habibi” is a perfect introduction to Mashrou’ Leila’s sound. It’s all there – a melody that sounds simultaneously familiar and foreign, delivered via bone-snapping percussion, guitars that stab and spiral, and a sense of drama that threatens to lead to an emotional breakdown. Yet, the song never feels like one intended for an arena performance, or, for that matter, anything more intimate than a small crowd, or your own headphones. The lyrics are also typically cynical without being bleak, and while the title may seem like a cliché, it’s employed in a way that’s fitting, given the sense of irony and “El Hal Romancy’s” overall theme.

While it might not have been intended, the following four tracks work best as pairs. Slowing things down, “Inni Mnih” (I’m Alright) is a whispered statement of barely-contained rage, and the type of regret that you suddenly realize you’ve been carrying around for years. Twin guitars shape a simple but effective melody, delicately fleshed out by a violin and an almost inaudible breathing of keyboards, while lead vocalist Hamed Sinno mumbles, “I’m tired of loving myself.” Despite the initial shift in mood, “Imm al-Jacket” (The One with the Jacket) is a perfect follow-up; a buoyant tune with a delayed sense of drama, it’s like a pleasant bicycle ride that takes an unexpected turn for the worse.

The last two tracks is where “El Hal Romancy” hits its peak, both sonically and lyrically – although “Imm el Jacket’s” musings on gender confusion are certainly worth a mention. As it is, though, this reviewer has yet to hear an Arabic-language rock song that even comes close to rivaling “Wajih” (Face) or the titular, closing track. The former is as much a call to arms as it is a tantalizing suggestion of Mashrou’ Leila’s true calling as a live band, with its grinding guitars, knee-jerk drums, and lyrics that anyone would love to sing/shout along to; while the latter showcases the band excelling at what they do best. The lyrics start off strong and continue to improve to a darkly comic effect: “I don’t know if I’m a man or an ATM,” Sinno confesses before pleading, “Marry me and read Engels in my bed … the solution is a romantic one/but it’s not wrong.” It’s also the most fully-developed song on the release, layered without sounding cluttered, catchy but not simple. And, like most great songs – or works of art, generally – it manages to be both uplifting and heartbreaking.

So, while “El Hal Romancy” (the EP) is a rollicking, reinvigorating burst of raw talent, it’s still a depressing one – at least personally – because it serves as a disappointing reminder of where Cairo currently stands in the regional music scene. An interesting side note can be observed in that Wust el-Balad, like many bands, is largely characterized by its members’ egos, whereas Mashrou’ Leila has a personality of its own – literally: visit their website, or read any of their posts, and you’ll find the members discussing the band as if it were an actual person – specifically, a female who goes by the name Leila. It is this devotion, this level of investment, that Leila has in spades, and that remains sorely lacking from too many of the region’s contemporary acts, and the evidence is there for all to hear. Egyptian rock bands, take notice: this is how it’s done. 

“El Hal Romancy” is available for free download from the band’s website.

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