It feels like The Great Unlearning has been coming for a while. Anthony di Franco and Gary Mundy, the two mainstays of the current incarnation(s) of Ramleh have been prolific of late, with the former releasing two striking albums as JFK in as many years (plus an excellent split with the Grey Wolves) and the latter resurrecting his Kleistwahr project to superlative effect with five albums since 2014. Hints of where Ramleh would be going with this latest release came (apart from tantalising posts on social media from the pair) in the form of 2015’s Circular Time, which saw them return to the “rock” iteration of the band, and the presence of Kleistwahr’s Music for Zeitgeist Fighters on Egyptian/French label Nashazphone, which now brings us The Great Unlearning.
Truth be told, I have often wondered at the reasons for splitting Ramleh releases between “rock” and “power electronics” versions of the band, although personnel surely plays a part as well as how the songs the duo write take shape. It’s an intriguing way to approach the ongoing evolution of noise/post-punk/industrial music, and one that draws attention to the chaotic and fragmented way those genres have developed. As elder statesmen of the craft, it feels like Mundy and di Franco are highlighting the essential confusion that seems to grip the power electronics scene, forever preventing it from coalescing into something seminal. Part of the zeitgeist even. And maybe that’s a good thing. As zeitgeist fighters, Ramleh channel the pure intensity of the music they helped shape and continue to blaze a brighter path than most, regardless of the form they use to do so.
Until we get to The Great Unlearning, that is. This is an album that shines brighter than even the majority of the band’s copious back catalogue. di Franco even told me he thinks it’s their best album and whilst I’ll need to give it a few more spins to come to that conclusion (I mean, Hole in the Heart and Valediction will take some beating) it is undoubtedly their most cohesive, even complete, simply because it takes the “rock” and “power electronics” halves of Ramleh’s personality and brings them together. Maybe this is because The Great Unlearning reunites so many stars of the extended Ramleh family: di Franco and Mundy are joined by former member Philip Best, frequent live collaborator Sarah Frölich (both of PE legends Consumer Electronics), and drummers Stuart Dennison and Martyn Watts. All have appeared with Ramleh frequently over the years, even decades, and all help shape the album along familiar lines (noise, drone, hard rock) until it coalesces into something that, while not entirely new, certainly feels pretty unique.
Anyone who has seen Consumer Electronics live -or listened to their last three albums- will know what an unsettling outfit they are and Best and Frölich here provide a lot of the mulch and noise on tracks like “Racial Violence”, “Futureworld” and “Blood Aurora”, aided and abetted by Anthony di Franco (I must remember to ask them what a virus synth is and where I can get one). By incorporating drums, alongside Mundy’s loping, circular guitar lines and di Franco’s rambunctious bass, however, what could have been straightforward noise/PE tracks take on a psychedelic life of their own, often spiralling and soaring and stretching over lengthy passages of dystopian bliss. “Futureworld” is nearly twenty minutes of seething sludge, the band’s avowed passion for Butthole Surfers on display as Gary Mundy’s open-ended guitar solos drag the band into the seventh circle of hell. The track, like the more minimalist (but no less effective) “Blood Aurora”, progresses at a leisurely pace, bringing to mind the more formless workouts by Neil Young and Crazy Horse or Les Rallizes Dénudés but with underlying throbbing gristle in the form of unhinged synth noise. “Racial Violence”, the third piece to break the ten-minute mark, is more barbaric: all squalling guitars, arhythmic percussion and mad synths.
If that all sounds a bit lengthy and intense, well, it is (and righteously so), but Ramleh can also rock out like true punks, as displayed on “The Twitch” and “No Music for these Times”. Typical of so idiosyncratic a band, these are no Sex Pistols-esque romps but rather taught, coiled blasts in the mould of a Wire or Pere Ubu, only heavier than both. “No Music for these Times” features a particularly captivating riff and a chorus that borders on catchy. On the final side of vinyl the band inches towards dark metal territory with the bluesy “Your Village has been Erased”, nod to their background in industrial music on the vicious “Procreation as an Imperialist Act” (although even here their not-so-secret love for melody becomes obvious through Gary Mundy’s shimmering guitar patterns) before closing on another heavy rock/punk rollicking in the form of “Natural Causes”. Here, the delicious subdued vocal harmonies between Mundy and di Franco evoke another of their favourite bands: early Pink Floyd and the way Gilmour and Waters’ voices also meshed so evocatively. In their reimagining of the dark psychedelia of Floyd’s era for a damaged 21st century, Ramleh carry some of the haunted grandeur of such icons.
The Great Unlearning is a hefty beast, carrying on where Circular Time left off but with even more focus on the past and the present, both Ramleh’s own as a band, and underground music’s in general. In keeping with previous releases and their respective solo outputs, di Franco and Mundy’s lyrics are morose and never shy away from trauma and despair, both personal and societal. It’s one more ingredient that makes Ramleh possibly the most essential “rock” band of our times.
As an aside, I can’t recommend Nashazphone enough as a label. Over the years, they’ve released excellent albums by Sunroof!, Sam Shalabi, Skullflower, Sister Iodine, Alvarius B and EEK. I haven’t yet had the time to give it a proper shout out, but in June they released Tqaseem mqamat el haram 2016-2019 by Egyptian electronic artist 1127 and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better noise-glitch album out there.
I also must recommend all five of the aforementioned Kleistwahr albums. No other power electronics artist currently operating is able to so seamlessly blend ferocious noise with overpowering emotion.