Killer science-fiction electronics.
Sote records are often defined by concepts: 2006's Dastgaah combined Persian melodies with experimental electronics, 2014's Architectonic was techno made without drums, and 2017's Sacred Horror In Design experimented with the electroacoustic possibilities of live instrumentalists. His new album on Diagonal, recorded in Tehran in 2018, is pitched as a soundtrack for a science-fiction vision of Iran, documenting an "artificial hyperreal culture manipulated and controlled by an imperious agency somewhere within all galaxies." The story may sound hoary, but considering the control the Iranian state has over culture, forcing many artists to lead precarious double lives, its narrative resonates afresh.
We are quickly introduced to the record's three main characters. There are two traditional Persian instruments, the santour, a hammered dulcimer played by Arash Bolouri, and the tar, a lute played by Pouya Damadi. Ebtekar processes these with a range of synthesis methods, orchestrating a taut drama between the players. On the madcap closer, "Pseudo Scholastic," the acoustic and electronic parts chase and imitate each other, flirting and fighting like lovers. The sonic textures are exquisitely crisp, best demonstrated on the opener, "Modality Transporter," which sounds like a series of portals opening onto the delicate strings of the tar, each wider than the last, until their edges start to fray and tear.
Ebtekar's proficiency in synthesis lends even electronic sounds a distinctive tactility. His noises stretch, tear and twist, sometimes seeming to change material rather than note or key—a dizzying section of the album centrepiece, "Atomic Hypocrisy," follows a lead which seems to transform from glass to rubber to glitching data. While this particular song's violent unpredictability is soothed by the doleful breath of the tar on the following track, "Trans Force," much of Parallel Persia is confrontational music, at times hard to digest. But the sensuous texture of Ebtekar's sound design means that even when he alienates the listener, the songs don't scan as academic. This sounds like complex music made with great feeling, and made to be felt.
"Pipe Dreams" is the album's most seductive song. It features the only regular beat and vocal snips of Persian poetry that land somewhere between military march and monastic chant. Ebtekar ratchets up the intensity, doubling the kick, but even at his most seemingly straightforward he is slippery—he piles lines of poetry on top of each other, so they would be obscure even to listeners who understand Farsi. The sound of the Persian tombak drum is mixed with a synthetic approximation of the same instrument, leaving the listener to puzzle over which sounds are natural.
Given almost all music software is developed in America and Europe, it takes some work to make programs play nice with things like quarter-tone notes and polyrhythms, which are often features of non-Western music. Ebtekar uses his technical expertise to disrupt this baked-in bias and craft something beyond a sci-fi image of Iran. He projects what electronic music might sound like if it was rooted in an alternative tradition. His parallel Persia is a stark, challenging place, but also beautiful. Its music may be rooted in the instruments of Iran, yet it speaks no language but its own.