A pain in the ass in the desert of the real | Brikkuni

Brikkuni swerve away from their frontman’s abrasive public image in the melancholy and sometimes rather majestic third album, Rub Al Khali

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)
Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

Most of us will have landmark gigs to look back on after we go through our teens and early adult life – and those who keep up the good fight will observe no age-cap on this experience – and for local music aficionados, Brikkuni tend to serve as useful benchmarks in this regard. 

For myself, it was the 2008 launch of their debut full-length album Kuntrabanda! that sealed it – turning the darkened techno party venue of Liquid Club, San Ġwann into a bright, rollicking party that took me back, in turn, to my days of attending punk rock concerts at the now-forgotten venue of Strings in Baħar ic-Ċagħaq. 

There are various factors we can unpick when it comes to trying to understand the popularity and appeal of Brikkuni; domed as the band’s appeal may be by their inextricable links to what we could consider the Maltese ‘indie’ scene, despite their lack of affiliation to and preciousness about pursing any artsy or underground cred. 

There’s the fact that they’re one of the first bands to really make singing in Maltese ‘cool’ in a way our generation has never really felt before, and that has since been taken up by other bands coming from a similar musical milieu so that, thankfully, it has been woven into the fabric of the local musical scene to ensure it’s no longer a novelty. 

But there’s also the fact that their ‘folk-rock-pop’ mish-mash gave way to some very appealing and gig-friendly songs that were both anecdotal and topical. The band’s loose approach to genre (to say nothing of its ever-shifting and generous line-up of musicians) ensured that their ‘protest’ songs spoke to a wider audience than, say, the punk rockers where you’d more traditionally find this strand being expressed, and the band never took itself seriously enough to be crusading all the way.

Taking Kuntrabanda! as some kind of blueprint, you’ll find quietly angry songs about humanitarian injustice (‘L-Assedju iż-Żghir’) alongside fun tracks about eccentric fixtures in the indie scene (‘Gadazz Ġiljan’) and impressionistic and amusing portraits of grotty ‘locals’ (‘Il-Bar ta’ Taħt Il-Knisja’). Former Brikkuni keyboardist Danjeli penned the inimitable piece of dark whimsy ‘Iz-Żuffjett’, and then the debut album was rounded off with the more straightforward anthems – this would be the punk rock strand – of ‘L-Eletti’ and ‘Kontra Kollox u Kullħadd’. 

Brikkuni's album Rub Al Khali
Brikkuni's album Rub Al Khali

The band’s sophomore release Trabokk (2012) didn’t quite play to the gallery however – that is, the crowd-pleasing ‘Gadazz’ and ‘Bar’ – and instead showcased a more allegorical strand both their lyrical content – with the likes of incest conspiracy ditty ‘Ċikku iċ-Ċinkwina’ and the certainly gig-friendly ‘Il-Gallinar tas-Sultan’ – while also offering a touch of haunting melancholy with the tracks like ‘Tiddi ix-Xemx Fuq L-Għodwa Moħlija’. 

But perhaps the standout track of that album was ‘Nixtieq’ – a pained lament for a perfect world that the speaker knows can never be made into reality. Songwriter and front man Mario Vella builds the song out of a series of deliberate paradoxes that speak true to human experience in general but also to the Maltese scenario in particular – responding to unsatisfying political binaries that will always be locked in an eternal race to the bottom. 

Vella is no stranger to controversy; a fact that erupted out of his usual boat-rocking among his (relatively wide) social media circles and into something of a national talking-point last summer, when he expressed his opinion on the Prime Minister’s wife Michelle Muscat’s charity swim using an evocative image that involved a jellyfish and the First Lady’s genital area. This led to the band being barred from participating at Farsons’ Beerfest – a fact that Vella himself appeared to respond to with an amused shrug, but which led to an often embarrassingly earnest display of solidarity from fans and fellow musicians, some of them even sprucing up their show of online support with #jesuisbrikkuni. 

By now, however, this has become the most boring aspect of the Brikkuni experience – the stuff of gossip and indeed hate blogs, as blogger Glenn Beddingfield used the mini-scandal to undermine Vella’s otherwise legitimate and oft-expressed critique of the current Labour administration. 

Indeed, there are far more interesting strands to discuss now that we’re here to talk about Rub Al Khali, Brikkuni’s third album and a seemingly definite departure from the band’s more raucous earlier sound, as well as Vella’s boisterous public persona. But there’s something to the emotionally wrenching Rub Al Khali that isn’t entirely at odds with what we’ve come to expect from both Brikkuni, and Vella himself. 

Because Vella’s expressions of anger and disillusionment, harsh and inflected with dark humour as they sometimes are, always come from a place of earnest emotion. Vella’s not one for protective irony or tongue-in-cheek games: his political, social and critical observations are always made plain for all to see – something that holds true for both his oft-legendary Facebook posts and the content of Brikkuni’s songs in and of themselves.

And with Rub Al Khali he has taken his earnest approach into what is arguably the most vulnerable place imaginable. Brikkuni’s third album is a concept album, of sorts. A concept album about the dissolution of a ten-year relationship. Yeah. 

Teased at over the past couple of months with a few choice tracks ahead of a full release on Bandcamp for free on Valentine’s Day, Rub Al Khali also proves that while the band will not likely recall any of their punkier elements in their new sound, they certainly appear to have retained a punk rock ethos when it comes to their DIY approach towards the dissemination of their material. 

Which means that the album is already snowballing its way into public appreciation, with old fans finding themselves galvanized and intrigued by this new direction, while Rub Al Khali is likely to create new converts as well – though certainly not among the hate blogger crowd – thanks to its atmospheric and heartfelt sweep. 

The title track that opens the album immediately marks out the work as something both new for Brikkuni, and also ambitious in its scope. The title evokes the largest desert in the world, and the violin-rich swell of the track’s first half soon disintegrates into a prog-rock outro that establishes discomfort and uncertainty as a running theme for the album as a whole. There are more such unsettling tracks, whose tempo doesn’t allow the listener to simply be swept away: I would put the likes of ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Stella’ in this category. 

‘Ċpar’ has Vella’s vocals placed at their most raw, as his lyrics paint an evocative and tragic picture of birds trying to take shelter – in vain – from the hunters of the Mġarr countryside… with the narrative framed, as ever, by the motif of the fading lovers that strings the album together. When it comes to songs that address this theme head on, many have praised ‘Għadna’, in which Vella is accompanied by YEWS (aka Yasmin Kuymizakis) for a duet that expresses some kind of domestic bliss that’s just about to fracture. But more effective still is ‘Għaxar Snin’, with a creepy cinematic overlay of sound that ties in perfectly with its central image: lovers embracing for the last time in a deserted city square. 

Perhaps the ‘secret’ to why Rub Al Khali works – why it feels so cohesive and powerful – is that it has something to say, but that for once this something is not a set of sharp and snarky observations about the outside world. 

Let’s compare and contrast. One of the most amusing lines from Kuntrabanda’s fan-favourite ‘Gadazz Ġiljan’ is: ‘Jekk inti għandek opinjoni, kun af li jien għandi tnejn’ (‘If you’ve got an opinion, know that I’ve got two’). But Rub Al Khali is an album free of opinions. It’s an album where the yappy, perennial online pain in the ass Mario Vella digs deep to release an internal torrent. 

Rub Al Khali can be streamed for free on Bandcamp: http://bit.ly/2kJqDbR. The album will be commemorated with a launch concert at the MCH Community Theatre, Attard on May 5