Arooj Aftab’s heart-stoppingly gorgeous Night Reign

June 4, 2024
3 mins read


Arooj Aftab – Night Reign (Verve)

GARY STEEL finally finds something to melt into in Arooj Aftab’s bewitching and sensuous new album, Night Reign.

There’s overwhelming statistical evidence that by the time you hit your 30s, the only music that sounds good are the tunes you absorbed during your formative years. Statistics sometimes bury the truth, however. Music heard during periods of growth and emotional intensity tends to have a special glow, but I’ve seldom met a genuine music lover who can’t enjoy the latest thing.

Sure, I know some blokes who groan on about modern music and its real or imagined flaws, but mostly, they’re hearing the chart-based plastic pop their kids and grandkids are tuned to, while turning a deaf ear to the universe of fine music that exists beyond commercial confinement.

Take Arooj Aftab, the Grammy-winning Pakistani-American singer/composer whose latest (fourth, actually) album, Night Reign, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous.

Rather than just taking hodge-podge from a range of influences, Arooj has absorbed each of them from their root systems right up their stems to their fragrant flowers, forging something strikingly different but organic in the process.

Somewhere in here, there are whiffs of Alice Coltrane-like spiritual jazz, and yet Night Reign is not jazz as such. Her vocals, the lyric repetitions and the occasional drones echo Indian Carnatic traditions, but this is not “World” music. The sense of mystery engendered by the never geo-explicit evocations occasionally hints at the 1980s explorations of Dead Can Dance or even Enya, but these are not ethno-forgeries nor new age ruminations. The woody textures and introspective songs are sometimes redolent of Nick Drake-like English folk circa 1970, but this is not folk music, either.

So, what is it? Well, Night Reign is its own thing, and it’s completely bewitching.

The dominant instrument is Aftab’s voice: deep, smoky, intimate, sensuous and unmistakable. She’s a master of understatement, perfectly on-pitch, infinitely just-so, every small vocal nuance meaningful. There’s genuine grace here, compelling self-control, and self-belief but none of the narcissism or sick-making swagger of so many contemporary singers.

Aftab’s accompaniment on Night Reign hinges on Maeve Gilchrist’s harp, piano and various synthetic iterations thereof, acoustic bass and deftly placed percussion. There are also horns, flute and vibraphone on several tracks. It sounds utterly acoustic and organic, but Aftab and several others play synthesizer, and Elvis Costello (of all people) plays Wurlitzer electronic piano on ‘Last Night Reprise’, one of the few tracks on which the artist sings in English and ramps up to a more conventional impassioned expression.

There are numerous guest contributions, but this is not one of those albums compromised by too many star turns or raps, and it keeps its composure throughout. The only song that breaks the trance (but not in a bad way) is ‘Bolo Na’, which features a brief poetic interlude by Moor Mother.

All the songs are original, except for Aftab’s brave re-interpretation of American songbook standard, ‘Autumn Leaves’, which is almost unrecognizable with its pattering percussion, twanging and groaning bass and spatial, super-clear mix. I’m generally not a big fan of fucking with songs that are so entrenched in collective memory, but the way she sings the lines makes you hear these words of yearning in a new way.

It matters not a whit that most of the songs aren’t in English; in fact, it allows the listener to focus on the sound of the voice. I don’t care what ‘Na Gul’ is about, but its prayer-like melancholy with a side of optimism moves me regardless. ‘Saaqi’, which features Vijay Iyer on piano, is mostly instrumental and boasts an exquisite, almost orchestral tone, with stretches of shimmering drift and wordless layered voices. (In fact, both of these songs come from an abandoned project to put music around the words of Urdu poet Mah Laqa Bai Chanda).

On ‘Whisky’, one of the few English language songs, Aftab sounds like NZ singer-songwriter Tiny Ruins, but better. “I think I’m ready to give in to your beauty and let you fall in love with me”, she sings, allowing the repetition of these lines to sink in rather than bore us with extraneous babble.

Night Reign is special, because Arooj Aftab has arrived at a space that’s hers alone. It won’t break into the Top 20, but neither is it a difficult listen. In fact, the first time I heard it I let the music melt all over me. Enjoying it was effortless, despite its adventurousness. She’s a beaut, mate.



Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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