AInternationally beloved singer-songwriter/producer Azam Ali’s award-winning career has been defined by boldly defying genres and commercial expectations to heed her creative instincts. In keeping with this fearless spirit, her latest opus, Phantoms, is a masterstroke of artistic wholeness and focus. The darkly alluring record melds Azam’s mystical musicality with gorgeously gloomy electro-pop.
Azam is responsible for every facet of Phantoms—she composed every song, programmed all the instrumentation, sang every note, and produced the entire album, a rarity in the male-dominated realm of electronic music. “This album is the castle of my dreams. It has transformed me, and opened me up to a new world of self-expression,” she says.
Azam’s career spans the chart-topping and ground-breaking international world electronic/ acoustic group Niyaz; her solo career, and featured performances in some of the biggest feature film, television and video game soundtracks. Azam has received two Canadian JUNO Award nominations and one HMMA (Hollywood Music in Media Award), for her bold artistry.
One would think with all the accolades, awards, film/TV/video game soundtrack features, and thirteen genre-defying solo and collaborative albums, the sophisticated Los Angeles-based artist would be winding down or shifting into artistic autopilot. Yet, the truth is, Azam is just getting started on a courageous, cathartic, and creative odyssey.
Outside of these creative guises, Azam has been an in-demand artistic force with a majestic and malleable musicality that’s been featured in a myriad of contexts. She has collaborated either in-studio or onstage with Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, The Crystal Method, Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, and members of Nine Inch Nails, among many others. She’s contributed to film and television soundtracks, working with some of Hollywood’s most renowned composers. Select film titles in her resume include Thor-The Dark World, Matrix- Revolutions, 300, The Fight Club, Dawn of the Dead, True Blood, Alias, The Agency, and Prison Break, among many others. She is also a well-known musical force in the videogame world. A cross section of titles she’s contributed to include Uncharted 3, Call of Duty, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow for which she won “Best Original Song” at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in 2007.
Azam was born in Tehran, Iran; grew up in India since the age of four; and came to America in 1985 after the Iranian revolution of 1979. As a teen, she studied music from a global perspective, soaking up the sounds and traditions from the Middle East, India, U.S., and Eastern Europe, among many other regions.
In her formative years, Azam also intrepidly embraced a variety of genres and musical eras. Crucial to this period was her love of dark wave and electronic-tinged music. Artists such as Massive Attack, Portishead, Soft Cell, Cocteau Twins (she covers “Shallow Then Halo” on Phantoms), Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Dead Can Dance, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry became the soundtrack to her teenage years as she became accustomed to her new life in America.
Phantoms offered Azam a chance to intimately explore this transformative and influential time in her personal and artistic journeys, and contribute to the canon of gorgeously gloomy electro-pop. The album is retro-futuristic in that it salutes 1980s synth pop while factoring contemporary influences such as Massive Attack, Portishead, and shoegaze artists such as Cocteau Twins. Stylistically, moody film soundtracks and classical music can also be found haunting the tracks of Phantoms.
In addition to its bold stylistic bend, Phantoms is the first album Azam sings completely in English, and, despite having co-produced her previous 12 solo albums, it’s the first album she has written and produced entirely on her own. That aspect alone has made this a life changing release. “This album became about getting over fears and self-doubt—the two demons every artist struggles with—it gave me a bring-it-on attitude. I feel like I can do anything now,” she says.
Azam’s empowering journey to artistic autonomy began 10 years ago when she decided to explore recording software that are becoming so accessible and ubiquitous these days. Phantoms became her first formal adventure in recording without any co-producers, and it took four years to complete. “After I finished each song, it felt like a monumental achievement. I soon realized my production skills were not a fluke,” she recalls.
Phantoms is rife with intriguing layers. The music has a masculine edge to it, brimming with grimy industrial-tinged textures, dirty ambience, and rugged beats. This edginess is beautifully offset by Azam’s sensually feminine vocals and her elegant instrumental production choices. “Life is about the dirty and clean, abrasiveness and tenderness, and art should reflect this dichotomy,” Azam reveals, highlighting Phantoms’ sonic contrasting dualities.
Thematically, Phantoms is intimately reflective, philosophical, and observational. “The lyrical content delves into the philosophies of spiritual humanism. The ongoing quest in our human existence to harmonize our outward journey in the material, technological, globalized world, with our inner human journey seeking sublimation and truth. And at the center of it all, lies universal, unconditional love for everything and everyone within the cosmos,” she reveals. Through this perspective, Azam fearlessly explores the haunting feelings surrounding her sense of displacement over having to flee her homeland Iran as a child, and learning to build an inner sanctuary to call home.
Phantoms is an entrancing ambient and downtempo album rife with standouts. “Hope” is a sensually emotive track replete with haunting textures, mystical atmospherics, and gripping lyric-less vocal melodies. “Love is a Labyrinth” pulls you into an emotional core of longing and seductive beauty—the track is a stunner due to Azam’s smolderingly emotive vocals.
One of the album’s standout tracks is Azam’s wildly reimagined version of the Cocteau Twins’ “Shallow Then Halo,” which is both spectral and soulful and almost totally reinvents the composition while remaining faithful to the spirit of original’s gothic core. Other standouts include the hypnotically melodic “Twilight Sheds,” which highlight Azam’s electronic music production prowess, “Phantoms” is imaginatively arranged, pulses with infectious beats, and exudes throwback 1980s synth-pop bliss, all part of a body of work that is a master class in showing the soul and heart of machines—electronic music can be just as expressive and emotional as organic music.
No doubt Phantoms is a milestone entry in Azam’s acclaimed career. However, right now, the album’s resonance for Azam is in its art-for-art’s-sake spirit. “I’ve shared a lot of intimate emotions before, but it’s been a long time since I have been this vulnerable. It’s truly liberating.”
“Azam Ali is like an ethereal beautiful voice from the edge of tomorrow. Think about traditional music vocals, updated for the digital age. Add Bjork, Portishead, Maggie Rogers, and stir. Great stuff from a new voice on scene”- DJ Spooky
“Tackling a Cocteau Twins song is regarded by many to be either very brave or very foolhardy. I know there haven’t been many covers attempted of our songs that’s for sure, but any really great cover version of any song needs to shine a new light upon it. The original was written before my time, so I may not be the best to judge, but Azam Ali ticks all the boxes for me. Its greatest achievement is that it doesn’t even sound like a cover version. Brilliant music!” SIMON RAYMONDE (Cocteau Twins)
“It’s a beautifully executed/produced/composed album with Azam’s voice lending it the emotional connection required to make it come alive.”- DAVID SYLVIAN