Hanni El Khatib - Savage Times

by Liam Hill

Hanni El Khatib’s fourth full length release comprises of five previously released EPs with some extra bonus tracks. The 19 track collection marks Khatib’s attempt to release music in real time, releasing tracks as soon as they were finished; the album being the full collection with the final recorded tracks. This style of release provides an interesting and diverse set of songs, at times appearing chaotic, yet there remains underlying themes and tones throughout which seems to connect the whole thing together. The seeming brilliance of this piecemeal process is the diversity of it, with influences of disco, punk and blues all coming through, with the feel of Khatib listening to something, replicating it in his own style and releasing it straight away, almost like someone starting up and covering their idols.

Despite in recent years having his tracks featuring in popular TV shows, commercials and films, as well as playing a range of festivals around Europe and the US, Khatib has received very little commercial or critical success in both the UK and the US. Perhaps this latest release will give him a stronger footing.

Lyrically, Khatib’s performance is somewhat disappointing, relying more or less solely on repetition for impact. Despite touching on emotionally sensitive topics such a race and heartbreak, there seems to be a lack of thought and depth going into such with the melody, rhythm and production of the songs playing more to these themes. For example, in Born Brown, a song about Khatib’s heritage, he eclectically chants “Mum came over in 75 / Dad came over 77 / I was born brown, born brown.” There is little deviation or development from this, with the chaotic sound behind Hanni’s desperate raspy vocal establishing the strength to the track. Likewise, opening track Baby’s Ok spares little time for poetic thought or structure and a general lack of overly emotive or poignant phrasing. “I was high as fuck, but hear me out”, “She couldn’t look my in the eyes, I understood”, “I’m a failure but I try, but I try.” Although there is some sincerity to the truth of Hanni’s story of a breakup catalysed from a drug-induced mistake, I personally struggled to feel any truly meaningful connection with Hanni’s words.

Sonically, the album is diverse to say the least and is at places hard to keep up with. There’s a somewhat schizophrenic sound, as when you think a middle ground of a sound is just beginning to establish, such as the psychotic and slightly psychedelic sound of Born Brown with primative vocals, Hanni throws in a musical spanner and flips to a bluesy disco sound with Paralyzed that is so far from the previous it could be from a different record entirely (in fact, originally they were on different EPs). The following track, Miracle, takes yet another alternative route with a stripped back and vulnerable tone accompanied by a bluesy rhythm, though this undoubtedly is far more consistent with the previous. Although at times the album feels fragmented, reoccurring tones and styles are seen throughout (Born Brown for example shares great similarities with Savage Times), I cant help but feel that had Hanni worked in a more conventional production manner, that some of these songs would have been saved for a different project.

At 19 tracks long, I was originally sceptical that this was going to be far too long. Whilst there are a few tracks that probably could be cut off, the run time is still only hour, with half the songs being under the typical three minute mark. But it is the longer tracks of the album that really shine. Closing the collection, Freak Freely, running at 5:23 is in fact one of the strongest parts of the album. With time to evolve and grow, the song opens isolated with drums, with the gradual introduction of bass and eventually the vocal over 30 seconds in. But not only this, with the luxury of time, the song takes a bold dimension rarely seen on the album adding a welcomed quirk of Afro inspired beats and a segment in the middle featuring a telephone inspired interview. Hold Me Back, at just under four minutes, is another high point of the album, again providing time for progression starting with a fairly-fast tempo, staccato and punchy tone, oozing into a smooth chilled vibe. This is not to say the shorter songs are poorly constructed, but simply that were Hanni gives himself the opportunity to evolve, he does so incredibly well.

The interesting thing about this project is it reflects exactly how Khatib feels over a series of months and is a true reflection of his emotion at a certain time. Taking into account the shape of politics and Khatibs diverse heritage, it would be provoking to see how this project would develop if he started all again in 2017 with a release next year. And despite at times being lyrically disappointing and even sounding fragmented, Khatib has a strength for melody and producing a unique and quirky sound. Credit must also be given for the way in which Khatib pushes himself, breaking down his own boundaries whilst providing an impressive collection of experimental and provoking tracks. Although this is unlikely to hold the potential for album of the year, the stand out tracks at least are definitely worth a listen.