Review: Ilyas Ahmed – “Closer To Stranger”

How this one flew under the radar is just beyond me.

Released Jan. 26 by MIE Music, Ilyas Ahmed’s Closer To Stranger is a hazy-edged dream riffing on the notion of identity that is set at the intersection of singer-songwriter acoustics and avant-garde initiation rites, a bizarrely listenable and sweetly digestible record whose textures will enthrall you.

Ahmed, whose Pakistani birthright feels like more of a footnote than a driving theme here, makes hypnosis-inducing dream-folk that envelopes the listener, whether it’s straight-forward verse/chorus/verse refrains (the excellent, bluesy “Cancel To Reveal”) or more abstract sound-scaping (the murky “Untitled I,” the Pet Sounds-by-way-of-Ariel-Pink-ish “Meditation on the Split Self”).  His voice is often barely more than a reverbed whisper, phantom-like, but the weapons with which he chooses to surround it – Fender Rhodes, found percussion and keys make appearances alongside a wealth of six- and 12-string guitars – are resolutely grounded and fleshed out. Rare is the moment when Ahmed casts an unplanned aside.

But for all of its careful composition – and there’s a lot of care in these compositions – Closer To Stranger has an easiness about it, even when it positions itself as carefully poised (the plodding palm-muting of “False Front”) or even epic (the balladry of “Furtherness”). In this, he echoes the recent work of Tara Jane O’Neil, which is no small compliment. But, throughout, Ahmed is the exception to other singer-songwriters, one who can make even his most constructed moments taste pleasantly undercooked.

There’s much to love about Closer To Stranger, not the least of which is the way it warms you like a familiar blanket. From start to finish, the compositional unity and, yes, sequencing, lend themselves to a kind of implicit wonder, a sense that you’re being lulled into something and, y’know, don’t seem to mind it after all. Ahmed closes the record in more direct approaches with the acoustics of “Two Steps Away,” a nice redux of beautific songs like the earlier “Fever Pitch.” But the patchwork treatment of ambient sounds with a folk approach is what wins you all along. – Justin Vellucci, Popdose, Feb. 15, 2018

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