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L.A.-based ethno-techno group Niyaz garnered considerable acclaim for their 2005 self-titled debut. Its fusion of chilled, exploratory beats (courtesy of Grammy-nominated producer-remixer Carmen Rizzo), intricate song craft (thanks to Iranian rocker Loga Ramin Torkian) and the richly textured, polyglot vocals of Iranian-Indian singer Azam Ali made for beguiling listening that was mellow without being passive and exotic without being condescending. The balance of Ali’s Urdu-inspired lyricism and Rizzo’s contemporary electronica garnered most of the attention, but the group’s well-arranged songs were the real key to the solidity of the album.

On Nine Heavens, Niyaz sets out to prove that point. Presented as a two-disc set, the album boldly delivers nine “electronic” tracks on the first CD and eight “acoustic” versions on the second. The reason for the scare quotes? Because none of the songs on the first disc are purely techno-based; they benefit mightily from the warm, organic sound that is Niyaz’s hallmark. Likewise, the cuts on the second disc are far from the simple, sparse voice-and-guitar approach commonly associated with acoustic songs. In fact, as lovely and sonically rich as the first disc is – particularly the overwhelming “Ishq” – it’s the homespun arrangement and instrumentation on the second disc that makes Nine Heavens spectacular.

With a panoply of Middle Eastern and South Asian instruments at work in tandem with strong percussion, the absence of Rizzo’s electronic flourishes is hardly noticeable; the cuts still ebb and flow with rhythmic virtuosity. With the real instruments front and center, the vibe is more insistent and less ambient, similar to Terry Hall’s semi-electronic experiments with Turkish sounds.

For a group with their reputation cemented, Niyaz took a risk with this second disc, but it paid off beautifully. Hopefully, Nine Heavens will stand as a fork in their discography, and their future releases will continue down this path.

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