Pie Are Squared has been Italy-based Egyptian musician Mohammed Ashraf’s vehicle for musical exploration and experimentation for many years now, and he has amassed quite a catalogue of varying sounds and styles. Pie Are Squared’s latest release, muri, is part of a continuing series of recordings released by whitelabrecs., entitled Home Diaries. I would definitely recommend checking out the whitelabrecs. Bandcamp page to check out some of the releases in this series, as the label’s invitation to artists and musicians to create an album or EP to document their personal experience during the lockdown or social distancing conditions has resulted in some very impressive releases.
muri is the thirteenth release in the Home Diaries series, and is notably different from the majority of releases in the series which have preceded it. Listening to some of the releases, it’s easy to come up with adjectives such as unsettling, haunting, and melancholic, which no doubt is perhaps how their composers were feeling when they wrote the pieces. On the other hand, it seems Mo might even be content. There’s a comforting peace to muri, which is quite uplifting to listen to. Perhaps this is because he is comfortable with isolation, or (at least) not new to it. A previous Pie Are Squared release was composed while Ashraf was living and working on an oil rig.
The slow build of opening track of An Emptier Sidewalk is a welcoming and warm Floydian fuzz. The delicacy of cleaner instrumentation underneath is gorgeous. There’s such a great sense of expansiveness and space in this piece that it’s impossible to feel enclosed or trapped – which is no doubt how some people in lockdown are feeling. Whenever I listen to this, I feel like the walls which surround me fall away, reminding me that there is still a world outside them. Of course, most days I escape those walls to take a walk, but if the weather is ever not right, or my mental state is nor right, then listening to An Emptier Sidewalk is just as efficacious as taking a walk.
Blanket, on the other hand, feels more constrained, but never in a threatening manner. It’s hard to say if the title is guiding my thoughts, but this is like being wrapped up and cocooned in a blanket. The feeling of cosiness increases throughout the piece, until it seems in the last minute to be reminiscent of drifting off to sleep – often the inevitable result of curling up in a blanket.
I have to admit these are just how I feel about the music. There was a PDF accompanying the album which contains an interview with Mohammed Asraf, which no doubt explained the concept of the album, but unfortunately I was unable to open it. Normally in this case, I would chase this up, but I decided that with muri it was really nice to just listen and enjoy it as I found it. The only preconceptions I could therefore have for the music, are perhaps drawn from their titles.
Would’ve Been Nice To Go Home has a calm, resigned air, and is probably the most beautiful track on muri, but also the most unassuming. In that respect, it’s the most ambient, as it’s easy for it to have passed by in the background, surprising me only when I realise it’s finished. I guess by its title, it’s meant to be a recognition that though many of us might want to be somewhere other than where we are, kept within our walls during lockdown, that it’s possible to appreciate the positive aspects as much as dwell on the negative. While it could not really be described as upbeat, this is an undeniably optimistic piece. Again, I cannot help but notice how different this feels from so many other of the Home Diaries series because of this optimism.
From the quiet and calm of the last track, Cocoon looms loud. Again, there’s the feeling of reaching beyond the walls of our lockdown residence – breaking free from our cocoon. And yet, remaining in that cocoon at the same time. So while it has much the same feel as the opening track for me, it’s wrapped in wispy and silky waves. To use the terminology of New Zealand, it is keeping yourself in your bubble, even when you leave your house. There is a real sense of safety and security in this piece, particularly towards the end. This is probably my favourite track on the album.
Let’s Stay In To Shoegaze has a suitably shoegazey feel to it, and it’s as enjoyable as any other track on this release, in giving a feeling of warmth, belonging and comfort, but the final track, What’s the Opposite of Nostalgia? is amazing. It’s as perfect a closing number as An Emptier Sidewalk is an opener. I don’t know what the opposite of nostalgia is, but as nostalgia is a longing for things as they were, I would guess this track is a reiteration to be happy in how things are. This track is the aural embodiment of contentment.
I’ve not heard all the releases under the name Pie Are Squared (yet!), but of those I have heard, this is definitely my favourite. Whether or not this is due to the circumstance under which it was made, and the fact these are circumstances we are all in one way or another sharing, or whether I am able to match its moods to how I feel about isolation, I don’t know. Regardless, it really speaks to me, and I have returned to it often. I’ve taken more time to come around to reviewing this than any other release this year, and I think that’s because I’ve listened to it far more for my own enjoyment than for the purposes of reviewing it. muri provides a way of escaping the walls of one’s own mind, as well as the literal walls of one’s house. I’ve found it liberating, and refreshing, and (as cheesy as it sounds) sometimes healing.
According to the whitelabrecs. Bandcamp page, muri came about because the initial Pie Are Squared release for that label was pushed back due to the COVID19 out-break. In the meantime, Mo set to work and provided the label with muri for the Home Diaries series. I can’t argue with the label when they describe it as a “ground-ed, well-balanced set of six tracks, placing all the noise and chaos right alongside a sheer and enveloping calm.”
(Post-Script: For whatever reason, I had not ever bothered to read the blurb for muri on Pie Are Squared’s Bandcamp page. I guess I assumed it would be the same blurb, more or less, that appeared on the whitelabrecs. page. It was only after finishing this review, and adding in the links, that I noticed the blurbs do differ. I was gobsmacked when I read it:
“Even though this was made entirely in lockdown, I didn’t want to make an album that is necessarily sad, I wanted it to sound cosy, comforting even. These are songs that I would play to try to detach myself from what’s going on outside the walls of my apartment (hence the album title) and I hope they have that same effect on whoever listens to them.”
Mo, rest assured, they had that effect on me.)
01. An Emptier Sidewalk (6:10)
02. Blanket (5:23)
03. Would’ve Been Nice To Go Home (4:00)
04. Cocoon (5:54)
05. Let’s Stay In And Listen To Shoegaze (4:38)
06. What’s The Opposite Of Nostagia? (8:08)
Total Time – 34:13
Mohammed Ashraf – All Instruments
Record label – whitelabrecs.
Countries of Origin – Egypt/Italy
Date of Release – 18th May 2020