The words “Bahasa Malay” are (approximately, at least) what you call the Malaysian language in the Malaysian language. Specificially why Nora Karailieva (fka Nora Zion in the music sphere) has adopted these words as her latest artistic moniker I can’t tell you, but it does get you thinking about language, perspective, comprehension. Importantly, I had to Google the words “Bahasa Malay” – otherwise I’d have been stuck with them as raw letter-shapes, letter-sounds. The name is a pithy riddle where you need to know the code to even recognise the code.
Music doesn’t quite work like words (!), but it certainly harbours plenty of codes and languages and as you climb into the dark, shimmering grotto that is Balkans, you get the sense that Karailieva has spent some time honing her own remarkable idiolect. Notwithstanding what we know about her personally (Nora was born in Bulgaria, lived long-term in Montreal and is now based in Perth), even notwithstanding the geographical juxtaposition of the project and album’s respective titles, there’s a global or creolised sensibility to these compositions. Opener “Jiji” sneaks in with a warm, tropical 808 pattern that collects layers of slippery synth and understated vocals in its journey through the atmosphere. “Rodopi” announces itself with strange, glitchy trills in a yawning chasm and spooky pitched-down vocals. Then a crisp, asymmetrical beat rides in on a wave of astral organ, eastern woodwind and cricket chirps. “Ink Strips,” meanwhile, fuses the dark clinical beatcraft of trap with droning textures, percussive samples and sci-fi blips in a way that’s reminiscent of the short-lived “witch house” movement, but far less formulaic, more elaborately perfumed. The vocal melodies, and indeed vocal rhythms, that emerge over these backdrops never feel inevitable – there’s a sort of modal, subtly jazzy, arcane quality that prevents them from ever being predictable. But unlike much jazz, the decisions never feel arbitrary or flashy, either. Each note is like a leaf landing squarely in its unexpected, but wholly apt position.
The album flows on relentlessly. “Behĭnd ẳly “ channels the leftfield RnB moods that Karailieva was carving out via the Nora Zion project; contemplative keys float over a sprightly drum machine (making excellent and liberal use of cowbell). Nora’s vocal line is funky, looping, cheerier. But the track never grows into a structure, content to remain a loose nebula of motifs that variously, almost capriciously, intersect. The same could be said of many of these tracks. The alluring, quietly propulsive “ḍǰaysĭe” (aka “Lynx Djaysie”) feels more like a formalised pop song (still in the loosest sense of the word), but it wraps up after a mere 1:37. Most of these tracks are brief – at least by experimental music standards – and even the longer ones seem like they might be excerpts from extended explorations, small glimpses into indefinite electro-acoustic ragas. It’d be tempting to call them “sketches” except “sketch” implies something that’s incomplete or rough and, on the contrary, each one is carefully considered and finely crafted, like a small but ornate jewel. In this way, and to an extent by virtue of her influences and delivery, Bahasa Malay draws parallels to another local favourite, the excellent Mei Saraswati. Both are prolific in their vocal-meets-production endeavours, churning out intricate, psychedelic and organic-seeming tunes with minimum fanfare and maximum quality. But where Saraswati’s vocals err towards the syncopated and groove-driven, Bahasa Malay offers a more meandering, skewed, ghostly approach. Indeed, despite the strength of the beats on this album, it’s often the layers of hazy abstraction that dominate, so that drum patterns cease to be foundational, instead free-floating in space.
As varied as the Balkans is – each tune has a very singular mood, a particular palette – the common thread seems to be that overlap of RnB, contemporary electronic subgenera, and global folk influences – combined with Karailieva’s mysterious vocals. Those melodies that can’t be foreseen, the lyrics that can’t be immediately discerned (indeed, might not all be in English?) and, even when fully perceived, can still seem obscure and otherworldly. Per the circular understanding of “Bahasa Malay,” there’s a sense of hermeticism surrounding this record, a sense that we can only get so far with apprehending it, that once again we’re grappling with raw shapes and raw sounds. Luckily, these are some incredibly beautiful shapes and sounds. In part it’s the mystery, and in part the sheer sonic beauty and strangeness, and there are probably some other forces at play too: whatever the case, Balkans will keep you coming back, again and again and again.