Andre Afram Asmar

Race to the Bottom

Race to the Bottom is truly world music -- an ambitious mixture of hip hop, electronica, and international rhythms. L.A.-based producer Andre Afram Asmar spent more than a year working on this follow-up to his self-released Zombeats album, recording musicians from Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, and then building tracks around their live parts. The result is a record that's haunting and evocative, summoning both stark desert landscapes and starless city nights.

Asmar shows a fine touch for arrangement throughout, bringing together disparate sounds -- djembe, flute, keyboard, oud, etc. -- while managing to keep the music restrained. The mood for the most part is slow and pensive, but Asmar occasionally kicks things up a notch, with groove-heavy dubbed-out numbers like "Scientism" and "To Be a Lover."

Many of the songs have almost too much going on, however -- the sound can change drastically from spry bass lines and head-nodding beats to cryptic android vocals and off-kilter polyrhythmic percussion. Also, the message behind the music never quite comes across. Spoken-word parts, a vocal section taken from a refugee camp in Bethlehem, and the CD cover's inset picture of a tank facing down a Palestinian boy hint at Asmar's political preoccupation, but his viewpoint remains largely abstract. Ultimately, the point may be that there is no point. Asmar's compositions are elusive and diffuse, but that's what makes them so powerful. Race to the Bottom bristles with a restless energy that's as dissonant as the world around us.

 
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