DUBAI: It’s been more than five years since “Ya Bay,” the debut album from Jordan-based indie-pop band Hayajan, was released. Frontman Alaa Wardi was already hugely popular for his online videos of layered a capella covers, but in the years since he has become a genuine online phenomenon with almost a million YouTube subscribers and two solo albums to his name.
Wardi, and his voice, naturally, loom large over Hayajan’s recently released sophomore album “Khusouf Al-Ard.” But it would be a mistake to see this record as ‘Alaa Wardi plus musicians.’ Guitarists Odai Shawagfeh (who also plays with El Morabba3) and Mohammed Idrei, bassist Amjad Shahrouh, and drummer Hakam Abu Soud are equally responsible for Hayajan’s impressive sonic soundscapes.
The majority of tracks on “Khusouf Al-Ard” fall into one of two categories: Upbeat funky pop or slower synth-led ballads. Often, though, those pop tracks have pessimistic lyrics at odds with the bouncy, foot-tapping feel of the instrumentation.
In “Zubalah,” for example, Wardi warns a Martian newly arrived on earth to leave again ASAP because the planet is “trash” and “There is no hope for a better future.” On “Al-Ghabah,” he tells a tale of a bullying animal who becomes king of the jungle and burns it to the ground to quell an uprising, leaving himself ruler of nothing. A fable that could be relevant to any of the world’s ‘strongmen’ rulers.
Throughout the record Wardi shows his vocal chops not just on the top-line melodies, but with great choices of harmonies. The rhythm section is super-tight and the crystalline, angular guitar riffs are often instant earworms. Many of the tracks use the old ‘slow build to crescendo’ trick to great effect. “Kbirna” — a nostalgic ballad that employs Imogen Heap-style Vocoder effects — in particular culminates in the kind of soaring soundtrack-friendly climax that Sigur Ros seemed to have made their own in the Noughties.
The one bum note on the record is “Jibna Al-Eid,” in which Wardi’s requests for us all to come together cross the line into saccharine simplicity (as does the music). The result being a track that sounds like the kind of bad festive charity single usually accompanied by a video of the assembled vocalists grinning unconvincingly at each other.
Still, the rest of the album makes up for that misstep. Along with “Kbirna,” opening track “Yalla Bina” is a high point — driving, funky rhythms interspersed with staccato guitar stabs and a vibe reminiscent of French band Phoenix.
“Khusouf Al-Ard” is a confident, bold record that rewards the patience of the band’s fans.
Listen to the full album here: