The idea of the “music collective” has been on the rise in recent years. Although it is seen as an unconventional process in modern music, prior to the 1900s almost all music centered around one composer who brought in specialized musicians to contribute to and play his or her pieces. In classical music traditions, this was the norm. Thus, the idea of one composer or producer creating work and then seeking out a rotating group of musicians to help realize it is not new at all, but rather it is being resurrected. What Mounzer Sarraf is doing with The Great Game, however, is new, as the work he presents to his musicians is almost never fully formed, and he asks much more of them than just masterful playing.
It is clear by listening to Sarraf as he describes his process for The Great Game that he is an idea man. When looking at a musical work, he says he comes up with a concept or a shell for what he is looking to do then contacts the people he knows who might be able to help him flesh out the concept. He may know what types of instruments or structures he wants within a particular song, but from there, he says, it is fluid. He feels that the best way to tie his vision together is to ask for help from the experts. People who have studied and understand the concept he is trying to create much better than him are the types of musicians he seeks out. This does not only mean his cohorts are experts in one particular instrument, but rather they are also experts in a particular style or cultural tradition in music. Once he assembles everyone needed for his pieces, he is content to watch them work together and then connect the dots at the end.
The result of The Great Game’s Frankenstein approach to creating music is, indeed, a creature made up of many different parts which comes together and functions as an extraordinary whole. The list of styles and influences on The Great Game’s debut self-titled album is almost endless. A heavy dose of indie rock, jazz, Eastern European folk, Latin American music and even ska can all be detected in different measures on this album. Looking at all of those different styles and trying to imagine them in one cohesive song can be difficult, but in most cases this unconventional process and its requisite parts do manage to work together to create something interesting and different.
The Great Game opens with Science, a song which instantly shows that unconventional styling from Sarraf with an electrified guitar which is playing a very traditional-sounding European melody. It is immediately dissonant but draws the listener in, and that is just the first few seconds of the track. From there the dissonance continues with trumpets which are in a different key than the guitars and than each other. Sarraf’s vocals start off quite folky then move to spoken word and a kind of power ballad rock style. All this happens while jazz trumpets and saxophone layer over each other. The lyrics discuss the dangers of making science sacred and its need to constantly improve. The song changes styles, keys and tempos several times before it concludes, and the listener will get the feeling that the chaos of the song is meant to crash around Sarraf’s vocals, the one calm constant in the song.
Bipolaroid is a track in the middle of the album which probably sounds the most like a conventional rock song. Here, Sarraf uses 90s-era alternative rock as his base, and his vocals are very well suited to this style. The guitars build around him toward the middle of the song, where they change to a more metal-influenced sound, while a funk bassline brings some lightness to the track as Sarraf belts out a very serious and emotive coda. The song’s style changes once more for the chorus, but beyond that, and lots of jazz fusion sax and guitar parts, it generally follows the normal rock structure of A-B-C-B-A. Still packed with raw energy, Bipolaroid is one of the best tracks on this debut album and shows how this interesting process can work to create great rock.
Two examples may not be enough to properly describe The Great Game’s sound, but then again it is possible that an entire volume of description still may not be enough. So many contributors with so many different talents, backgrounds and cultural traditions, along with Sarraf’s whirling idea factory, make the best way to get a grasp on this album is to just listen and experience the beautiful mayhem that is The Great Game.
As in all things, The Great Game is unconventional in the way they offer their debut album to the public. It can be streamed on Soundcloud or downloaded for free on the band’s website, but fans who want to pay for the download will find there is no option for that. What Sarraf asks instead is that fans make a donation to The Great Game’s Indiegogo campaign in order to fund the ongoing collaboration which made this album possible. Links are displayed below in “Sources.”
Review by Layla Klamt