Does anyone remember Muslimgauze? It was the creative outlet of Bryn Jones, a man from England who was basically a human assembly line, extruding close to 100 albums’ worth of material over the course of roughly 15 years. (The first Muslimgauze material appeared in 1983, and he died in January 1999 of pneumonia, caused by a fungal infection in his bloodstream, which sounds like the kind of thing a noise musician would use as a track title.) In the nearly quarter century since his death, dozens more releases have emerged; Discogs lists 151 albums, 34 singles and EPs, and 18 compilations, plus five “miscellaneous” items: a flexi-disc, a half-hour interview released digitally, etc.

I never listened to Jones’ work when he was alive, though I’d occasionally see one of his releases reviewed in a magazine, usually an English magazine; his profile was slightly higher there than in the US. But a year ago or so, I stumbled across a cache of his early material, including the Hammer & Sickle and Hunting Out With an Aerial Eye EPs and his first 10 LPs: OpaquesKabulBuddhist On FireBlinded HorsesFlajelataHajjAbu NidalJazirat-ul-ArabCoup D’Etat and The Rape of Palestine. (All of that material was released between 1983 and 1988.) I downloaded the batch, and checked out some of it, but then other listening commitments intervened, as they always do. And I kind of forgot all about Muslimgauze again.

Then, in December, a Russian label called Aquarellist put out a six-CD box of slightly later material called The Extreme Years 1990-1994, which included reissues of the albums IntifaxaUnited States of IslamZul’m, and Citadel, the Infidel EP (which mostly consists of remixes of the title track), plus a compilation called Fatah, which gathers tracks from other compilations, outtakes, and rarities. All this stuff was originally released on the Australian label Extreme, hence the box’s title. It’s not a description of the sounds, just their source.

So anyway, now I’ve got close to 15 hours’ worth of this guy’s stuff, and I’ve listened to enough of it that I’ve reached the point where I’m starting to have thoughts about it.

The “hook” with Muslimgauze is that almost all of his compositions and albums have titles related to Middle Eastern conflict. Most are references to the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israelis, but he also dumps out references to the Iran/Iraq conflicts of the 1980s, the Iran/Iraq war (he supported Iran, for what it’s worth), the first Gulf War, and the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. Those which aren’t called things like “Israeli Bullet Passing Through the Body of a Palestinian Child” or “Fatwa (Religious Decree Giving Recourse to Terrorism)” or “In Search of Ahmad Shah Masood” are given more prosaic, superficially Islamic titles like “Ways of Faith,” “Green is the Colour of the Prophet,” or “The Divine Cause.” The records’ covers bear photos of Arab men and women holding rifles, or images grabbed like clip-art from Muslim religious manuscripts or artworks, or stock photos of Middle Eastern cities. It’s a fire hose of symbols packed together in a way that it feels unified at first glance, but the more you analyze it, the less sense it makes.

This becomes even more true once you do a little bit of reading about Jones himself. He was by all accounts a socially stunted shut-in who lived with his parents in the north of England, making a lot of his music in his room and periodically venturing to a nearby studio (his dad would drive him there, and pick him up when he was finished). He had almost no interest in anything but his own work, and was, according to those who put his records out, or shared bills with him on the rare occasions that he played live, virtually incapable of carrying on a conversation that wasn’t about his own music or his idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) understanding of Middle Eastern politics. His track and album titles were culled from trips to his local library; he rarely left England, never mind traveling to any of the parts of the world his work was supposedly “about.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t think it actually matters what the music is “about,” because almost all of it is instrumental. Jones said in an interview, “There are no vocals for two reasons: One is a lot of the music is ruined by bad lyrics badly sung…Most people in today’s music cannot sing. Also, it can lead to preaching. Muslimgauze have very strong political beliefs, but you can listen to a track without having opinions pushed down your throat. Second is that I like to do everything and I can’t sing, so I don’t.” When voices do appear, they’re sampled and consist of people singing in Arabic, or clips from documentaries or news programs, but those are relatively rare exceptions.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the question of what, exactly, the polemical value of instrumental music is. My contention is that there is none. Someone has no doubt had sex to a piece of music that was intended to serve as a memorial to victims of an atrocity, or a protest for civil rights, or whatever. Or maybe they’ve just put it on to have something to listen to while doing dishes. The point is, you can give a piece any title you want, but once it’s in the hands of the listener, it belongs to them.

What Muslimgauze music is really about, more than anything else, is rhythm. Jones was a talented percussionist who played a wide variety of instruments, and programmed rhythms pretty well, too. So there will tend to be a few different layers of rhythm happening, and then some minimal keyboards, more atmospheric than melodic, often treated with echo and reverb in a way that sounds very influenced by dub. If I had to put this music under any one heading, it would be “industrial,” but some of it is quite ambient in nature, while other tracks are pounding techno that you could play in a club tonight. They’re not songs; they’re compositions, with structure and cohesion but relatively little in the way of dynamics or structural variety. There’s a lot of individuality — the pieces sound different from each other — but once you’ve heard the first minute or so of a given piece, you know more or less what it’s going to keep on doing for the next five or eight or thirteen minutes.

I want to be clear: I like a lot of this music as music. Its repetitive nature combined with the quality of his sound choices (I really like the particular drum machine beats he seemed to favor) and his production hits an aesthetic sweet spot for me. I could listen to this stuff all day while writing and editing. But the track titles and album titles are so disconnected from the sounds that they are effectively meaningless. They could have been called anything else and sound just as good. And I think I find the titles and the imagery more bothersome than I otherwise would, precisely because they’re so meaningless, so gratuitous, so dumb.

Which makes me wonder what Bryn Jones might have thought the point of his provocations was. (Note that contemporaries like LaibachCoilPsychic TV, and Whitehouse were pursuing different types of musical and conceptual provocation during this period, and all were muddled/scattershot in their approach, though in the case of Laibach it might have been more deliberate.) Was he trying to “raise awareness” of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians? Or was he just spewing, in response to things in the news that made him angry or depressed, while still maintaining a frankly extraordinary degree of quality control, given his output?

If I got the sense that Jones had any serious understanding of Middle Eastern politics, Muslimgauze’s project would be more worthy of debate and intellectual parsing, even close to a quarter century after his death. (Here are three links to discussions of his work, one generally pro, one strongly anti, and one somewhere in the middle.) But because the signifiers are so superficial and muddled, it’s possible to not only separate the art from the artist, but to peel the art apart like pulling the label off a box. The sounds can be stripped of their context, just as Jones stripped the samples and photographs and even title phrases he used of their context. The music can exist on a separate plane from its creator. Indeed, it’s easy to argue that it should exist that way. As Jace Clayton aka DJ /rupture puts it in the third piece linked above, “to hear Muslimgauze, we must not listen to Bryn Jones.”

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