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Hanni El Khatib’s ‘Savage Times’ Reviewed

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‘Savage Times’, the new hot pink album by Hanni El Khatib may be Elton-John-approved, but it is also as raw, vengeful and liberating as a primal scream. El Khatib is a man running for his life throughout 19 tracks, although he eventually slows down for a few disco beats. We learn that he was raised on mangos and rice, but gets paralyzed from panic attacks, he fondly remembers characters from his past but thinks he is gonna die alone, and above everything he was born brown and he shouts his lungs out about it.

As the son of a Palestinian father and a Filipino mother, El Khatib explores our current world with the eyes of an outcast who has witnessed violence and beauty, at a time when immigrants are the focus of every country.

The album is full of energy and contrasts and all the songs offer an amazing diversity, often too rare in today’s music. it’s as multifaceted as Hanni’s ethnic background, it’s funny and angry, raging and dance-y, and probably other things, and if you fear listening to a long album – 19 songs! – the whole thing is just under an hour-long, as most of tracks are packed around only 3 minutes.

The album opens with the charging bullet, ‘Baby’s Ok’, a liberating piece of punk rock, which, with its the ringing guitars, a triumphant spirit over deceptive lyrics, ‘I’m a failure, I’m a lie, I’m a failure, but I try’, could fit side by side with a Titus Andronicus song. And as soon as it ends, the tempo shifts to the cooler ‘Gonna Die Alone’, a collection of eclectic sounds which seems to show the same inventiveness and distortion that Beck used to do, then it’s all about rage and fear again with ‘Born Brown’, a lynched run-for-your-life race, chased by angry dogs that immediately jumps into a infectious piece, the sweaty dance-floor of ‘Paralyzed’ and its a Bill-Wyman-Miss-You-inspired bass lines.

The album offers many other contrasts and shifts many times with ease between brutal chaos and hybrid discos, going from morose punk confusion (‘Mangos and Rice’), to homicidal assault (‘Savage Times’) or just plain happy disorder (‘Mondo and his Makeup), offering a surprising diversity till the end, like during the heartfelt power-chord sing-along of ‘Miracle’, the chorus that almost misses a hip hop verse of ‘Come Down’, the dry blues of ‘Black Constellation’ or ‘So Dusty’, or even the stomp meets the Doors’ mad organ of ‘Till your Rose Comes Down’. There’s even a Blondie-esque hot disco Studio 4 (‘Peep Show’) and a LCD Soundsystem tropical punk dance (‘Freak Freely’).

Strings and keys bring a few songs into new territories, once again clashing with the trashy aggressiveness of other ones, and for an hour, Hanni oscillates between losing control and keeping his coolness, squeezing as many influences as he can afford to, injecting as many political charges he wants, experimenting with rock & roll and blues while the disco ball shines very bright on certain tracks.

This is an album which was not supposed to be, a few years ago, Hanni had abandoned the idea, although he had released a series of five ‘Savage Times’ EPs, during 2016. He started ‘Savage Times’ after the Bataclan attack forced him to cancel his performance in a festival in Paris, and he included the previously released songs on the record alongside a few new tracks… a line like ‘If we all come down, I’ll be in the pit’ may be a direct reference to the Paris massacre.

‘Savage Times’ is a trip into El Khatib’s consciousness responding to our brutal world, it starts with a disoriented message ‘Didn’t know who I was’, screamed in ‘Baby’s OK’, and ends with a self affirmation, ‘Be yourself, even if it kills you’, a mantra that Hanni endlessly repeats in ‘Freak Freely’, at the end of the record. If it is an album which was obviously not conceived with a sonic unity in mind, it works nevertheless, and it is a rewarding journey. It is a fragmented album for our fragmented times, and that’s why it is so good.

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