Breaking English, the Anti- Records debut of New York composer/guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, seeks to shatter preconceptions about how much can be said without a word – and, for that matter, who can say it. Bhatia's audacious first album as a producer sets out to challenge existing musical vocabulary with a language of its own. It ruptures the hermetic vernacular of ambient sculpturalism with the emotional intensity of avant-garde jazz, using the techniques of the former to achieve the feeling of the latter. Its language is centered on contrast, with opposing strains juxtaposed in order to throw each other into sharper relief – the organic feels more vibrant in the context of the mechanical, the otherworldly more ethereal in light of the ordinary. Throughout, Bhatia's guitar is just one part of a teeming, much bigger picture. Tense violin, exhaled gospel vocals, ricocheting drums and foreboding bass also populate Breaking English, all characters in an enveloping piece of musical cinema.
Bhatia seamlessly integrates dozens of different ideas throughout Breaking English. Take the title track, a marvelous chimera of deconstructed soul, where skittering drums dodge explosions of white noise as a detuned choir gasps for air. Trips to the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the mosques of Istanbul inspired the swirl of sculpted noise that begins the album. His horror with the news of these last several American years and his empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement supercharge the menacing "Hoods Up." A fascination with avant-garde cuisine actually helped to shape "The Overview Effect," a breathtaking piece that expresses the overwhelming fragility of the Earth as seen from outer space. The contaminated orchestra of "Olduvai II – We Are Humans With Blood In Our Veins" bottles the nightmare of waking up brown in America on November 9, 2016.
From start to finish, Breaking English suggests one very deep breath, one instant capable of carrying so much. Beauty, violence, death, rebirth – it's all tucked into the two-movement "Perihelion," an eight-minute descent into the sun that uses distance and perspective to ponder the line where what dazzles us can destroy us, where something so sustaining can turn sinister. That Icarus-like enticement speaks to Breaking English, an album that required an already-accomplished musician to abandon what he knew and test his own limits. That risk rewards repeatedly here, on a record that funnels a universe of anxiety, hope, and inspiration into one singularly provocative and mesmerizing statement.