The way things are going, you’d be hard pushed to find an LP title that better encapsulates the mood of 2017 than Hanni El Khatib’s raucous double album Savage Times.
Since the release of his 2015 album Moonlight, Los Angeles garage rocker Hanni El Khatib has been a busy man. Besides getting high with his old mate Snoop Dogg, Khatib has released a string of EPs which combine, along with some new releases, to form Savage Times, his most ambitious and compelling work to date.
Nineteen tracks deep, Savage Times is the fusion of four EPs released throughout 2016 with seven previously unheard tracks, which has allowed Khatib to create a work with great breadth and variety. While the album remains rooted on the sturdy foundations of guitar, amp and drums, and is characterised largely by the mucky, subterranean sound Khatib is known for, Savage Times is no one trick pony. Nor is it something we’ve all heard before. It ebbs and flows in its intensity and at times meanders towards what are clearly a wide and weird spectrum of influences for Khatib.
Perhaps inevitably, an album nineteen tracks long will never be flawless. Hitting the skip button at certain moments of Savage Times is no sin. A handful of the nineteen are unremarkable, though none are truly bad. But what such a selection of songs offers is great versatility.
Thanks to the inclusion of music written and released over the space of a year, Khatib has created something refreshingly varied and interesting. In its versatility, there is fun for all the family on Savage Times. From hysterical, politically charged punk to dirty disco all the way to acoustic with a hangover – it’s got it. Think of it as a rock n roll buffet: you can pick and choose, there will be things you like, others not so much.
Churning out four EPs in the past year, Khatib seemingly, has had a lot to say. In light of the shit storm that is the contemporary cultural and political landscape in America and the West, this is no surprise. One of the powerful things about Savage Times is its reactionary feel. The whole aesthetic of the work feels like a pertinent response to a time of crisis and division.
“Born Brown” is a seething rant which pays homage to Khatib’s immigrant heritage and is the most overtly political moment on the record. Originally released on the Savage Times vol. 1 EP in 2016, the track’s pertinence has augmented immeasurably as Donald Trump seeks to ban green card holders from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Following Trump’s executive order, it is hard not to see “Born Brown” as a fierce assertion of Khatib’s Palestinian and Filipino roots and as a message of solidarity: “Ma came over in ‘75 / Dad came over in ’77… worked worked worked, worked to survive“. The track has a classically punk feel. It presents a defiant finger to a very real imposition of division.
In direct contrast to “Born Brown”, the track that follows, “Paralyzed“, is probably Savage Times’ most refined moment. “Paralyzed” is a catchy, TV-ad-friendly song clad with groovy guitar melodies and falsetto backing vocals.
With an infectious refrain and falsetto ‘ooh-oohs’ it makes for some of the easiest listening on the entire album. Arguably, placed next to the other eighteen tracks, it is the most inconsistent with the record’s overall feel, but certainly a standout number.
A track or two later, Khatib switches the distortion back on his amp for the bass-heavy “Mangos and Rice“, a song of hard-hitting simplicity reminiscent of Death From Above 1979’s “I’m A Woman, You’re A Machine”. The repeated lyrics of “I was raised / On mangos and rice” is catchy in a way that differs to “Paralyzed”, but renders it a memorable moment on the album and a tune that would fit right into a skate edit.
Another noteworthy track is the twisted “Mondo and His Makeup“. Containing some choice lyrics about a man “hop-skipping away for a pizza and a blow job“, Khatib paints the picture of a captivating, (if not slightly questionable) individual: “people knew him for his eyes and his smile and his accent / Moved up from the south to get a piece of the action / he wore a snakeskin belt, high leather shoes, gold chain, turquoise turtle neck“.
The track contains something attractively carnivalesque, particularly when the warped organ solo kicks in, making it delightfully reminiscent of Ray Manzarek’s keys on countless Doors’ tracks.
Savage Times’ undertones of perversion and vice reappear in “Peep Show“, this time backed up with disco bassline and groovy guitar. Here, Khatib’s lyrics “we fell in love at the peep show” are often accompanied with bass and drums alone, and the stripped-back, gritty disco sound make it one of the most infectious moments on the album. You could maybe even dance to it.
The closing track on Savage Times, is arguably the most interesting and to say the least, quite a lot to take in. Comprised of a weird blend of 80s, Roxy Music-esque arrangement, near-tribal percussion and a sampled voiceover of a girl describing graffiti which exclaims ‘Freak Freely’ on the wall of an abandoned Alcatraz prison, paying tribute to the Hippy and Freak movements of the 1960s.
If you are to listen to only one track on this album, it should be this. Though not blatantly political, it is a fantastically cool celebration of individual weirdness and resistance at a time it is truly needed: “Now be yourself/ Freak freely if you’re really free“. This one you have to dance to.
In its entirety, Savage Times is undeniably strong. One of the great merits of its length is that there will genuinely be a few songs in there for most people. However, this also means it is a work that could be whittled down. It is likely that for those who listen and enjoy it, the record could be reduced to eleven or twelve tracks, but from listener to listener, this selection of tracks would never be the same.
Savage Times offers great scope; it is reflective of a musician who has assimilated many colours to his pallet. It is an interesting work that responds to an interesting juncture in culture and politics. Out now on Innovative Leisure, Hanni El Khatib’s Savage Times on iTunes here.
Words by Dan Carabine