Sir Richard Bishop: The Freak of Araby

By: Ron Hart

On the MySpace page of former Sun City Girls guitarist Sir Richard Bishop and his new group, the Freak of Araby Ensemble, their listed genres read "Psychedelic/Surf/Pop." While not exactly off the mark, the sounds featured on the post-punk legend's latest Drag City release predominantly stem from Bishop's Middle Eastern roots.

Following up on his explorations into flamenco and gypsy music on the excellent 2007 release, Polytheistic Fragments, The Freak of Araby (Drag City) finds the guitarist paying homage to his Lebanese heritage by covering several traditional compositions native to his motherland in combination with a variety of original arrangements crafted in the spirit of the Arizona-born Bishop's Middle Eastern roots, while continuing to keep one foot in the American Primitive stylings of the late, great John Fahey. Right off the bat, The Freak of Araby finds SRB paying tribute to one of his biggest heroes, Egyptian guitar legend Omar Khorshid, on the album's first track, "Taqasim for Omar," a spare, sprawling raga that offers but a glimpse of the rich melodies and textures awaiting the listener deeper within the album's corridors.

From there, the songs get swept even further into the multi-faceted complexities of Arabic composition, as the rest of Bishop's Freak of Araby Ensemble, consisting of drummer Mohammed Bandari, percussionist Abdulla Basheem, bassist Ahmed Sharif and second guitarist Rasheed Al-Qahira fill in the colors, particularly on Freak's interpretations of traditional Lebanese songs "Kaddak el Mayass" and "Sidi Mansour." However, glimmers of Western influences do come through in narrow beams of light across the Arabian vibe beyond Bishop's allegiance to Mr. Fahey's Takoma label sound. You can certainly hear fragments of the aforementioned surf category in elements of "Solenzara," which aims to trace The Ventures' Pacific Ocean blues to the mouth of the Nile, while the seven-and-a-half-minute closer "Blood Stained Sands," a Bishop original, peels back the layers of American psychedelia to reveal the Eastern influences beneath the acid-laced drones - or is it the other way around?

While the overall feel of The Freak of Araby might not scream "Psychedelic/Surf/Pop," an educated ear can certainly hear the sketches of such sounds against the heavy Middle Eastern currents crashing inside these ten compositions, which not only result in one of Bishop's best solo recordings to date but also will remind many Americans sullied by the pragmatic ignorance of their own fears of the unheralded beauty and mystery the Arab world has to offer.

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