Nabihah Iqbal : DREAMER

Nabihah Iqbal DREAMER review

It always seemed unfair to me. Nabihah Iqbal’s debut full-length release Weighing of the Heart was released in December of 2017, the part of the annual cycle when writers in the media begin wrapping up the year and compiling best-of-year lists. Which I’m just as guilty of, for sure. But it creates, for lack of a better term, a vacuum for new releases by artists to get first and second looks while the holiday craziness rolls over into the “next quarter,” as publicists would say ad infinitum via email.

Fortunately enough Iqbal, a trained ethnomusicologist, put down this hybrid cross-connection of a project that worked its way through post-punk, indie, house and electro with easygoing landing points. Identifiable, if hesitant on some selections, but all in areas you’d expect to hear under her DJ moniker, Throwing Shade. Since 2013, she’s hosted radio shows on NTS and also appeared on BBC networks such as Radio 1, 1Xtra, Asian Network, World Service, and 6Music while touring extensively as a live act and DJ previous to the release of her debut album. Don’t call her a tastemaker—they introduce ideas. Artists of Iqbal’s ilk make statements.

With compositions that reference the early salad days of Human League—the non-radio version—combined with, say, a rosier version of The Cure, Iqbal had by far one of the more successfully discernible albums from that year. As dope as an album like Laurel Halo’s Dust was—and I bumped the hell outta that album—Iqbal’s debut sounded unique, outside of clubland. A couple steps away from the dancefloor, painting a mood board of an architect who lives outside of the DJ-centric electronic music Twitter quagmire.

While there was nothing cookie-cutter about it, Iqbal wasn’t attempting to turn a Lazy Susan into a Crazy Susan. The soul of that record lives in some emo, post-punk outpost. Minor chord arrangements unlocking drum machines. That’s what I loved about it: She showed me her cards. Iqbal alternated between spoken word delivery and trilling vocalizations over her coldwave darts. Skeletal electro frameworks dominated the rhythmic aesthetic. This fluttering between scenes plays real. No funny costumes or mysterious press releases. Good musicians find new ways to be creative—that’s it. 

In fact, the new Avalon Emerson project The Charm, in which she fully immerses herself in an indie-rock band, provides insight into where some creatives come from before mixing it up behind the decks. Non-performative glimpses of musicians who slap on the guitar before or after the rave. That speaks to a certain inspired energy. 

So, five years later, we have Iqbal’s big-sounding definitive record DREAMER, which got completed despite her studio being burglarized, a family mission to Karachi, Pakistan to aid her grandfather, and well, you know: COVID. The press release imparts the tale: “She went back to basics and bought an acoustic guitar and a harmonium. Alongside a loop pedal and voice notes, she spent the next two years crafting her album.” But this feels freer than a Todd Rundgren Back to the Bars title.

The setbacks became the setup. Progress and advancement reside here, with no holiday interruption cutting into the momentum. The hymn-meditation intro “In Light” floats on for six minutes and change, glimmering and beaming as to cleanse the negative energy of the past couple of years. It sets up the indie-jangle elegance of the single “Dreamer,” which has so many Slumberland Records/San Francisco vibes it’s scary/beautiful. Iqbal is fortified, doubling down on all the choices made on her sophomore record, as if to say “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in 2017.” From the uptick in post-punk quirk and jerk of “This World Couldn’t See Us” and that word-speak piece of clubland on “Sunflower,” she’s all gas and no brakes with her liberties, pushed to their full potential.

There is no time for hesitation in actions, no overthinking “Will all of these textures work alongside one another” lack of confidence. “Throwing Shade” oozes zeal, bravado, and quiet confidence. The Butts in Seats calculus is correct. Making the acoustic guitar and harmonium instrumental ”Lilac Twilight,” a pleasant four minutes in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park when the right kind of herb blows thru and Karl The Fog is freestyling on the wind. And I don’t even smoke, homie.

But the parsley sage smoothes us out for a sec, before getting back into bass-bin-centric clubland with “Gentle Heart” and the heightened synthy temperance of “Sky River.” This is a record focused on getting lost in some type of whimsy. A sensation of bombastic colors skitter around the space while dancers, believers and lovers, all sway to the thing that brings them life. Look into an adjoining next room, and a band is working it out by way of simple chords and complex ideas smacking upside a drummer’s backbeat. 

Iqbal’s sophomore album favors its own beliefs, its own sounds. In moments of great strife, strength, power and confidence get extracted. But hey, I am a dreamer too. Some might have missed the gist on the first album, for numerous different reasons, but this is that noble step forward, production and arrangement-wise, calling back to the first idea and song offered here, down to the lyric, which serves as the album’s mantra: “In Light, You Wake.”

Label: Ninja Tune

Year: 2023

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