Ilyas Ahmed is a name many may have come across through his collaborations with fellow Portlander Grouper/Liz Harris on his previous album Goner (2009) and more recently on the Visitor EP. Ahmed’s latest full-length album With Endless Fire (Immune) proves that he is a skilled guitarist whose voice is distinctive but understated. He has a knack for creating songs that feel like reading good Philosophy: much murk and layering on the surface that is rich with guitars, but always filled with moments reaching clarity, either through percussive waves or his breathy voice.
The nine-minute long opening song “Now Sleeps” is definitely meditative, like most of Ahmed’s work. It begins by daring the listener to indulge in a layer of drones that awaken midway through with crisp acoustic strums and sparse finger cymbal clangs, later pierced by muted, distorted electric guitar that buzzes but is never irritating or shrill.
Elements in the opening song generally characterize the rest of With Endless Fire, but the album is nowhere near monotonous or repetitive. Similarities across the songs in fact lend cohesion and consistency to Ahmed’s pleasant weirdness. The buzzing electric guitar features prominently on “Stained Sky” and has developed a more abrasive tone compared to the similar sound on Goner. However, it still manages to retain the calm aura of the previous album, only now it is a soothing growl:
If there is one song that accounts for Ahmed’s comparisons to Ben Chasny in the blogosphere, it is “Every Minute of Every Hour (For JR)”, which comprises of delicate fingerpicking that is sensitively embellished, much like the style of the man behind Six Organs of Admittance. The best songs on the album that effectively show Ahmed’s balanced use of both electric and acoustic guitars are “Sapphire” and “By the Light”. That buzzing drone becomes a landscape in “Sapphire” where the pace of fingerpicking rushes at first then slows down in each bar, carving a haunting, resonant trickle through the song that is reminiscent of James Blackshaw’s work.
“By the Light” is a sinuous six minutes of complementary interweaving guitars accompanied throughout by his whispery voice. Surprisingly, hollow and glassy Eno-esque tones float in towards the end of the song as he begins to layer his own voice. This has the potential to provoke goosebumps. By introducing new sounds, Ahmed creates deft, new ways of hearing and feeling at the very end of the album, simultaneously suggesting a sense of resolve and opportunity.
With Endless Fire is not an album for everyone, considering Ahmed’s long songs and abrupt passages of silence such as on “My Mirage”. However, listeners of folk, drone and raga rock styles will likely appreciate Ahmed’s work, which grows on the listener with time as one begins to appreciate the oddities and layered soundscapes. Ahmed’s capacity to constantly build sonic layers and add new elements each time proves that his experimentation is rich, worthwhile and may take you on journeys of discovery with every listen.