Back From the Brink: Pre-Revolutionary Psychedelic Rock From Iran: 1972-1979
Label: Now Again
The foundation of rock ‘n’ roll is rebellion, but it’s one thing to face oppression from parents insisting that the garage is the only acceptable practice space and quite another to be a dedicated guitar player in a nation all too well versed in social tumult. Kourosh Yaghmaei was, according to legend, a naturally talented musician. He was a university student in Tehran in the early 1970s when he released his first single, “Gole Yakh,” a gentle pop song with a lilting piano underpinning. It became a significant success, and Yaghmaei took the opportunity to start bringing his flavored version of the rock music he loved to his homeland, drawing particularly on some of the touchstone bands of the ’60s such as the Doors and the Kinks. That lasted until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution led to Ayatollah Khomeini taking over and turning the country into an Islamic Republic. Clearly a government that was going to do things like strip away women’s rights with mandatory hijab wasn’t going to stand for godless rock ‘n’ roll. Yaghmaei was barred from performing and recording, a prohibition that lasted for years.
For decades, much of his music was thought to be forever lost, but it turns out Yaghmaei surreptitiously protected the songs. Much of it has now been collected on Back From the Brink, which bears the telling subtitle Pre-Revolutionary Psychedelic Rock From Iran. Spread across two CDs or three LPs (or in a special box set that features “exact reproductions” of his original 7-inch singles), the music is the sort of thing that can be easily imagined as the misty soundtrack of George Harrison’s dreams after overindulging on Sleepytime tea. There’s a clear debt to the rock bands he loved, but all of the music is clearly, defiantly connected to the place where it was conceived. Employing traditional Persian instruments along with guitar parts and Vox organ tones more familiar to Western ears, the whole compilation has a hypnotic quality. It’s hard to shake the sense that this is exactly the sound all those other bands were chasing on the albums packaged with gatefold covers that were nicely suited for separating out stems and seeds.
Part of the release’s purpose is to illuminate the gradual evolution Yaghmaei experienced. Slowly but surely, Yaghmaei gets more confident in his ability to meld disparate genres. “Hajme Khali” starts with the scratchy sounds of a recorded thunderstorm as preface to Yaghmaei’s lushly murmured vocals – as a singer, he sounds as if he’s in a constant state of seduction – and then finds room for a nifty bluesy guitar lick on the bridge. Like many of the songs, it has an exploratory quality, a feel of musicians figuring out what they can do as they do it. Not many of the songs can be described as jazz-influences, but there’s some of that genre’s signature creation-through-feel woven through the work.
With more than two hours of music, Back From the Brink doesn’t always hold the attention. When music seems designed to help hippies relax, there’s a good chance that it’s going to become a little too lulling at times. The further he pushes into different musical zones – the ’70s cop show theme song funk of “Entezar” or the classic AM radio slickness of “Kei Toe Miayee” – the better the album gets, not just because of the surprise of those moments, but also because the songs steeped in his own background are made even more resonant by the contrast. It’s these passages that make Back From the Brink something more than an admittedly vital piece of musical archiving. It’s an album that, strictly on its own song-by-song merits, deserves attention.