A musical project helmed by multi-instrumentalist Ali Jafri, The Shadow Majlis’ debut album ‘The Departure’ defies easy categorisation. The material takes in elements of goth, rock, world music and even dub reggae to create a cornucopia of sound with subtle layers that offer the listener something different on each play.

Via an intro that sounds like an ominous field recording augmented with bell-like percussion, ‘The Way Home’ delves deeply into a crossover arrangement where elements of world music and melodic indie pop meet. The sounds of tabla and soffegio pipes add texture to a deep sitar drone almost immediately, and the sedate rhythm which quickly takes a hold doesn’t really change throughout the next four minutes. It has a gentle quality, but that’s not to say the track feels either safe or boring, as the pop-ish melody that flows through the vocal is rather lovely. Although tonally different, there’s something about Ali’s choice of melody that occasionally carries a hint of a New Order ballad, but he takes something familiar and twists it into something new, peppering a basic tune with a very emotive tone which works brilliantly against a slow rhythm. By the time a second vocal adds a strong layer of melody, the slow groove has really begun to shine, suggesting that this is a musical project that’s big on atmosphere. With the late arrival of a cold, gothic guitar, it’s also one that also isn’t afraid of a little nostalgia. The busier ‘Love In Flames’ owes a great debt to The Cure’s ‘The Hanging Garden’ with its busy drum part and heavy use of extra percussion beneath a huge vocal, but it becomes a little more distinctive with the help of some bright sounding synths and another world music drone which cuts through the centre. Drummer Rakesh Tewsri plays up an absolute storm throughout, but if anything really stands out here, it’s David Bottrill’s sparse yet loud piano work which lends the later part of the number more of a cinematic feel. Despite ‘The Departure’ being home to more interesting numbers, the aggressive rhythms alone make this a standout track.

Another genuine highlight from this strong collection of recordings, ‘Mazdur’ is a track that takes a post punk/goth core and pushes boundaries just a little further. Its fusion of moods serves up a sound that is both dark and beautiful, and with a flowing, mournful vocal melody that occasionally feels like a throwback to 80s goth pop from The Bolshoi meeting with one of Robert Smith’s more melodic takes, the varied sounds retain something very familiar at their heart. The first four minutes of this epic track make for a decent listen with a curious blend of tribal drumming and Spanish guitar, tabla and orchestral sounding synths, but the band expands on an already great arrangement by appending a massive instrumental coda where Bauhaus/Love & Rockets man David J’s bass takes the lead and steers the band through a huge groove falling between the sounds of the young Jah Wobble and a slice of dub reggae. It’s lengthy approach doesn’t always make ‘Mazdur’ feel like an instant hit, but there’s so much here to love.

Much busier, though no less focused on the world music elements, the brilliant ‘Deer In The Headlights’ works a busy rhythm where a dominant tabla bristles against a deep vocal, occasionally sounding like a throwback to work by Tuatara. This is used as the main melody to drive the chorus, which – somewhat unexpectedly – isn’t actually as striking as the verse. During the verse, The Majlis’ love of an indie pop melody springs forth with a lead vocal that’s both clean and confident, and that, placed against a very 80s goth bassline becomes the ultimate in crossover sounds. Ali’s lead brings a strong link with previous tracks in the way he uses his voice to soar above the busy melodies, but with a little more of a pop edge and a couple of filters applied for atmosphere, this actually feels quite different again. By opening with deep, Eastern sounding drones and a world of keyboard sounds that evoke ‘The City’ era Vangelis, the title cut drops the listener into a soundscape where the goth overtones are cast aside for something more soundtrack-like, and with a couple of operatic vocals to flesh out the already grand melodies, it’s clear that Jafri isn’t thinking small. As the track progresses, David J places a world of superb bass sounds beneath a strong female voice and a world of otherwise disjointed sounds, before the tribal drums return to remind everyone of The Shadow Majli’s massive crossover potential. This feels much more introspective, and yet it still plays like a natural extension of the band’s overall sound. Those who find a love for tracks like ‘The Way Home’ could well find another favourite here in time.

Those looking for something a little more straight ahead will likely feel more drawn towards the very melodic ‘Swallowed By The Sky’, a cold, goth-pop workout that places Ali’s vocal against a high toned bass and busy percussion. Even from first listen, there’s something massively familiar here; perhaps its the way that (much like bits of ‘Mazdur’) the vocal occasionally soars like an old Robert Smith performance, or maybe its the way some of the drums invoke the busier elements of The Cure’s ‘Pornography’ album once again. It could even be down to David’s chosen bass sound which, in more than a few places, revisits a very 80s sound. The tune may be cold, but it still manages to be strangely inviting, pulling in the listener via its layered harmonies and film score worthy synths. It’s here, more than anywhere, that it becomes clear how important keys man David Bottrill is to the band’s overall sound. His playing is never flashy, but the way in which he uses blankets of sound underscore the prominent world music flourishes and retro indie-pop-rock is absolutely crucial in helping the disparate elements come together seamlessly.

In a world of disposable hits and push-button streaming, Jafri clearly isn’t looking to give people a quick musical fix with ‘The Departure’. With the many layers that require exploring and a recurring theme of loss, the album definitely plays so much better as a complete, all encompassing listen. The music isn’t about giving the listener an instant boost either, even though there are times when it feels strangely uplifting. This is a sometimes solemn, but often rather thoughtful record; one that values atmospheres and moods over any real immediacy. In time, though, it’s the kind of album where the rich textures really spring to life; a record where flow of the vocals sometimes feels as vital as the music itself. If you can find a way in, ‘The Departure’ has a quality to it that’s bound to impress.

June 2024