We all have a friend playing rock music. But how many of you have a friend making rock operas? I have! His name is Ahmed Awad but everybody calls him Amadeus. Like Mozart, he is a child prodigy. A musician who can play faster than his shadow. He is the Paganini of Prog rock, the Santriani of the Middle East.
Our friendship goes back to his pre-rock star days, when Amadeus was the sound engineer of my hair commercials. During endless re-editing sessions, we were constantly talking about rock music. One evening we decided to make a heavy metal remake of the Arabic hit ‘Fenou’, with Amadeus playing the tune in power riffs and me rapping the lyrics. It was the closest I ever got to rock ’n roll stardom. A total blast.
Ghost Stories - Big things have small beginnings
Little time later, Amadeus started his own recording studios. “An artist’s gotta to do what an artist’s gotta do” he kept telling me. In between commercial work, a first EP was born: ’Ghost Stories.’ (And yes, that was long before Chris Martin & co released that similar titled LP). It’s a humble start that carries the seeds of future work: virtuous guitars in epic soundscapes. I always adored the acoustic opener ‘April Rain’. I thought of that track every time it rained in Malaysia. And oh boy, does it rain a lot there.
Heavy Metal Kebab - Hungry artists
Back in those days I was into hard Rammstein riffs. “Why don’t you play some of that stuff?” I once asked Amadeus. “Too basic, too boring” he replied. His heart always belonged to prog rock, a genre requiring manneristic technique and endless improvisation skills. We clearly have different tastes in music, but I always admired his talent and endless pursuit of rock ‘n roll stardom.
To make rock music in countries like Lebanon or Malaysia, you either have to be brave or crazy. Ideally, you are both. The audience is small, basically the same 100 people showing up at gigs. Record sales are next to zero. How many CD’s did Virgin Megastore sell of Coldplay? 800. Imagine how hard it is for local bands to get their work produced. But things are changing. The internet may have killed record sales, it also creates new opportunities. Mashrou Leila is currently touring in Canada, Who killed Bruce Lee is conquering Germany. As for Amadeus, things have moved too.
Time of the Equinox - Dreaming in colour
Summer 2012. I was chilling next to the pool when I stumbled upon some amazing photos in National Geographic. The pictures looked like abstract Rotho paintings but they were actually salt lakes at sunrise. I couldn’t think of a better cover for Amadeus’ upcoming album: ‘Time of the Equinox.’ The artist was sold and his art director later turned the idea into an amazing colour-scape. I still love the artwork. Its simplicity stands out in the prog rock genre, where graphics tend to be as elaborate as the solos.
‘The Time of the Equinox’ sleeve art also reflects the colourful music inside. Cascading guitars blend with sunlit melodies. My favourite track is ‘Spiritus Devi’, a song I'd like to nickname ‘Theme for Top Gun 2’. Like the Steve Stevens original, it has this ballsy guitar melody that transports you to the cockpit of an F14, nosediving at Mach 2. The album marked a big bang, the take-off of a career.
The Equinox was quickly followed by the beautifully titled EP ‘Schizanimus.’ EP is clearly an understatement in Amadeus-land. 3 songs are good for 23 minutes of prog rock magic. At the time of release, the album escaped under my radar, only to resurface years later. My loss. Despite its heavy themes (hate, betrayal, schizophrenia, suicide - very joyful), I find it Amadeus' most approachable album. Songs are bathing in rich, acoustic sounds. Warm string ad to the cinematic feel. Schizanimus is a kind of Space Odyssey, with Elia Monsef’s vocals reaching new dimensions.
The Book of Gates - Death by the Nile
In the spring of 2014, I was shooting commercials in Bangkok. Every day the production van fought its way through endless traffic jams. Nothing was moving and I didn’t care. I had found another way to be transported: Amadeus’ side project EON. His new creation - ‘The Book of Gates' - is not a rock album. It's a rock opera. The lyrics read like a libretti of a Verdi opera: a Pharaoh is killed by his queen, angry Gods seek revenge, the Nile turns blood-red… It’s Aida on steroids, music that’s slightly out of my comfort zone. It’s big. It’s monumental. A sound as solid as the Giza pyramids. A production as elaborate as the temples of Karnak, with one giant fluke: the album is too short. Pharaonic production costs forced the artist to abandon the project after 4 songs. It's Amadeus’ unfinished symphony. A half finished pyramid waiting to be finalised.
Death is just a feeling - Creative Resurrection
Jan 2016. They say that a friend in Lebanon, is a friend for life. I always thought this was just a cliché, but after my stint in Asia, I am proven the opposite. The minute I set foot in Beirut, Amadeus calls me to catch up. Do we have a lot to talk about? You bet! Amadeus' latest album is a shocking tale of re-generation. Actually, the artist is lucky to tell the tale.
Girlfriends are often named as the enemy of rock bands (ask the Beatles) and they almost claimed another victim. Existential questions about long term commitment pushed the artist into a deep depression. On a dark Friday in May, he took a crazy dose of pills and alcohol. If it wasn’t for a rock-loving guardian angle, Amadeus would now be jamming with Kurt and Jimi. 24 hours after his close call with death, he took a piece of paper and penned down his traumatic trip. 4 days later, he had all the demos ready for what was to become his Magnus Opus: “Death is just a feeling.”
Prog Rock Royalty
An army of mercenaries was hired to bring Amadeus’ vision to life. Prog rock royalty like Anneke Van Giesbergen and Arjen Anthony Lucassen on vocals, Marco Minnemann on drums. The result is an incredible story of transformation. After years of shredding guitars, the overall tone is intimate and acoustic. Guitars in function of the song, versus guitars making the song. The album is a sonic Gesamtkunstwerk of spoken words, atmospheric intros and epic melodies. It is written in one go, from the unconsciousness of a tormented artist. Surrealist artists have a name for it: “écriture automatique.” When the mind goes in autopilot, the soul gets carte blanche.
Putting the Art into Cover Art
Even the outstanding artwork is the result of a spontaneous idea. After the artist confessed he felt like a 'lonesome clown', Roula Issa dug out her make-up kit and made a snapshot with her smartphone. A few clicks on standard filters later, a haunting image was born. A follow up shoot wasn’t even necessary. It would have destroyed the raw power of the image. With a little pride, I noticed the artist went back to the typeface I suggested for “Time of the Equinox”: Tryan. The most beautiful letter ever designed, immortalised by Peter Saville’s artwork for Joy Division.
The packaging hides more surprises. After I remark that “Every end is a new beginning” the artists digs out the booklet that starts with: “… where it ends” and finishes with the line: “I want the whole universe to know that the story begins …” A perfect circle.
The album has been released world wide and named in numerous ‘best prog rock albums’ of the year. His label in the USA asked for physical copies. In days of digital downloads, printing 10.000 hard copies needs hard cash. What sounded like a risky business turned out to be a blue chip investment. The album is currently sold out. It says a lot about the progressive rock scene where fans still want to pay for physical albums.
Life goes on
Half a year has passed since our meeting. Tomorrow, “Death is just a feeling” is celebrating its first anniversary. A live gig will mark the occasion at the Quadrangle pub. The same club where it all began with ‘Time of the Equinox.’ It’s a small venue, not really a rock area. But who cares? “An artist’s gotta to do what an artist’s gotta do.”