Pollution Opera regurgitate the world

Pollution Opera: Nadah El Shazly (left) and Elvin Brandhi. Photo by Malik Beytrison.


Nada El Shazly’s voice is something to behold. Last weekend at 24-HOUR DRONE, I watched her perform a powerful set over a minimal backing track: Alone on stage, the Egyptian vocalist and composer-producer seemed overcome with emotion, pounding her chest and falling to the ground as she sang heart-wrenching laments in Arabic.

On Pollution Opera, the self-titled debut album from her duo with fellow singer-sound artist Elvin Brandhi, shows a different, though not entirely unrelated, side of her skill set. The new album, released in April on Danse Noire, is a haunted journey through menacing drones, jarring percussion, and jumpscare samples. But even amid all this noise, there’s a constant sense of forward motion, evoking a slow but unhalting trip down the River Styx into the depths of Tartarus.

The interplay between El-Shazly’s and Brandhi’s vocal lines is Pollution Opera’s central feature. Stationed at nearly opposite poles of what the album’s bio calls the “feminine vocal spectrum,” their attraction is magnetic, and the ensuing fusion is nuclear.

Take “Cairo ???,” the sinister cut that sits dead center on Pollution Opera’s tracklist: Jagged bursts of drum-like feedback disruptively punctuate the orbit of Brandhi’s Auto-Tuned glossolalia around El Shazly’s moans, which sit most comfortably in the alto range but are prone to breathtakingly fast flights octaves above it. But these stabs of static fail to puncture the song’s gravitational center — an insistent synth that’s essentially the main piano theme from Phantom of the Opera, slowed to a 10th of its original speed and threaded through a foghorn filter — as it oozes methodically toward its destination.

The song’s visuals are appropriately dystopian. Set in a quaint dining room where Brandhi and El Shazly sit and wander aimlessly while an older gentleman drinks from a mug, reads, and eventually leaves, it’s quotidian on paper. But its Super-SloMo pacing creates an undercurrent of tangible terror, suffusing even the apparently innocent glance they exchange when they find themselves finally alone with evil intention.

Pollution Opera regurgitate the world

Pollution Opera at Rewire 2023. Photo by Sean Charlton White.


The seeds of Pollution Opera were planted on a tandem motorcycle trip. Riding through El Shazly’s native Cairo, she and her Welsh counterpart welcomed the city’s noise pollution, a volley of figurative arrows splitting the literal surrounding smog.

The record germinated in Kampala, Uganda — another motorcycle-saturated city, as luck would have it — where the two artists served out separate but simultaneous residencies with the meteoric Nyege Nyege collective. Field recordings from both cities (engines revving, dogs barking, children shouting) sit alongside their vocal latticework on the finished product, encircling their sturdy synth foundations like swarming wasps and colliding to create what the duo describe as “an uncompromising world-spew, a shameless alloy of love and hate.”

“Our futurist mythology unfolds between death and rebirth, a timeless vacuum of hope and dread,” they write, describing what sounds like an intense creative process. “The repetition of musical steps, in contrast to the totally improvised vocal outpour, allows us to forget our mind and speak from a nameless gut. In this sense, [we are] composing not songs but spells.”

El Shazly and Brandhi’s postmodern opera begins with an overture of sorts: “Pollution Bold” introduces the record’s themes, inasmuch as they exist. More importantly, it gives us a glimpse of the black hole that awaits at the album’s opposite end, dragging us toward our doom.

“Attention” is the closest the album gets to B-movie camp: Introduced by an evil laugh, an air raid siren to the tune of the violins from Psycho, and an infant wailing in stereo, the track centers uncharacteristic horrorcore bars from ascendant Egyptian rapper Lil Baba, gushing through a whirlwind of growls, screams, and trap drums with artillery kicks and shattered-glass snares. It’s followed by “Tusker Light,” a relatively subdued, El Shazly-forward cut that nevertheless allows the record’s trademark terrors to bleed in from the edges.

From the symphonic swells of “Bite” to the slow-rotting “Cairo ???” through the creeping six-minute saga “CRÎ Me a River,” where sharp barks disrupt whispered secrets and galloping drums threaten to overtake El Shazly’s transcendent singing, the album’s central trilogy is its strongest section. Each of the record’s final three tracks is powerful in its own right, but they don’t adhere to one another the same way the first six songs do. For the first time, Charon’s skiff shows signs of hesitation.

Maybe that’s the point, though: The job of Pollution Opera is not to heal the wounds of the world with the sense of an ending. Rather, Brandhi and El Shazli rip them open, chew the bloody flesh beneath them, and gleefully spit it back into the open sores.