In Ancient Egypt it was believed that when a person died, they would be judged on their behaviour as a mortal before being granted a place in the afterlife, judged in a process known as the weighing of the heart. The heart was believed to have been the centre of thought, memory and emotion. If the deceased was guilty of wrongdoings, the weighing scales would tip and their hearts would be eaten by Ammit, a terrifying beast that sat next to the device of judgement and would cease to exist at all. However, if they were true of voice, they would be allowed passage into the next life.
In a sense, London-based Nabihah Iqbal has gone through a similar passage from one phase of her musical life to another. She once performed under the name Throwing Shade, releasing a clutch of critically acclaimed EPs often described as being cosmic R&B, drawing on popular music from across the globe and threading these elements into her own patchwork quilt of sound. Now, she stands proudly as a British Asian musician under her own name with her new album, Weighing of the Heart.
That isn’t the only transformation that she’s undergone since casting off her Throwing Shade moniker though. For her first record under her new, authentic guise, she’s channelling the likes of the avant-garde delvings of Can and the gothic rock of Bauhaus, mixing this with her production skills to present a more organic sound. There’s a much greater focus on live instruments on Weighing of the Heart than on Iqbal’s previous works, all of which she has played herself. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this new sound is the guitar, which has a particularly prominent role on the album.
This is where Iqbal’s very own weighing scales begin to come into play; Weighing of the Heart is an album where live instrumentation and electronic production collide at every corner. Rather than continually tipping the scales too far in either direction though, Iqbal manages to keep things just about even across the ten tracks. She manages this from the off, with the stately piano of ‘Eden Piece’ gradually being surrounded by breathy vocal loops, drum beats, the twang of hazy guitars and even more jazz-inflected ivories layered upon the top.
From there, Iqbal explores varying combinations of this formula, with the likes of ‘Something More’ introducing a post-punk vibe not too dissimilar to Joy Division, while the instrumental ‘Alone Together’ mixes snapped, crushed percussion with swirls of ambient synths punctuated by a nagging guitar riff. ‘Eternal Passion’ draws on stiffer, almost robotic 808-style handclaps and draws on the high energy of club music while still retaining an almost shoegaze vibe. The short closer ‘Untitled Friday’ is almost house-inspired, with floaty, atmospheric melodies hovering elegantly around a low, constantly throbbing heartbeat and a throng of different drum beats that all leave space for one another to flourish and be heard.
Indeed, Iqbal often ensures that the different aspects making up each part of the tracks is afforded that same breathing room, meaning that, despite the multitude of fascinating ideas flying around, it never feels overly cluttered. ‘Feel So Right’ exemplifies this, with its constantly reverberating guitar never overshadowing the deep, pulsating, yet gentle beats resting as a foundation. Instead, Iqbal’s light touch gives the impression of walking on air.
Much like the Ancient Egyptians, Iqbal also turns her attention to the everyday lives of those around her, examining the experiences of living in the modern world in her lyrics. The existential side to the record is cast in its most invigorating light on the heart-stopping ‘Zone 1 To 6000.’ Inspired by the poetry of Matthew Arnold and William Blake, she sums up the transience of metropolitan living in her rapid spoken word delivery, saying “we wandered through each other’s lives just like the river’s constant flow.” She also tackles the monotony of a rigid daily routine: “The sun will rise, the sun will set/ Seven days, five and two/ From this life into the next/ We’re all just trying to make it through.” Her voice eventually, and starkly, fades off into the distance in the final line, “escape on Friday/ Caught on Monday,” pretty much resigned to the fact that the relative freedom of the weekend can never last.
Iqbal’s poetic delivery on ‘Zone 1 To 6000’ suits the feeling of being swept up in a cycle and she elsewhere she similarly employs a specific vocal tone to help drive in her point. ‘Something More,’ for example, touches on the seemingly impossible task of finding true happiness, Iqbal’s almost detached vocals evoking a sense of malaise with the mundane as she languidly implores “wake up, it’s another day.” At other times though, Iqbal can sometimes be washed out by the sounds around her, the echo surrounding her words can slightly obscure her lyrics or make her seem so distant that her messages end up becoming somewhat lost in the ether.
How, then, would Weighing of the Heart be judged by the Ancient Egyptians? It’s an honest record, one that puts Iqbal’s own deftly balanced sound and influences to the forefront, while also having some piercing yet thoughtful insights into contemporary society. As a first step under her own name, it’s a hugely confident stride forward. Iqbal would have little to fear from the gods and Ammit.