For those who have been following Fatima Al Qadiri, Brute isn’t unfamiliar territory. Or at least that’s what I thought on my first listen-through the Kuwaiti composer’s new full length album, out now. In fact, Brute is quite subtle. While Al Qadiri continues to develop on similar themes as in her past work – the industry of war, the balance between play and violence, video game soundtracks, a kind of futuristic occultism – Brute situates itself amid the crisis of modern race dynamics in America. Utilizing a vocal sample of retired LAPD sergeant Cheryl Dorsey, for example, Al Qadiri constructs a most delicate patchwork of grime, ghosts, and racial phantasmagoria. One might say that Al Qadiri is at her best in the mode of the soundtrack, Brute being a kind of soundtrack whose central violence revolves around police brutality.
In a 2014 interview at the Red Bull Music Academy, we heard Fatima Al Qadiri say, “It’s not brute force,” referring to her martial arts-inspired approach to composition. And yet, two years later, we have Brute. I would argue, however, that as much as Al Qadiri has mastered an agile, fit-for-battle sound, the subtleties in her work have continued to multiply, making Brute an album whose true value is only apparent on the third or fourth listen.
Below, I offer my thoughts on some tracks from the album, highlighting its lows and highs.
Brute is out on Hyperdub.
SPIRITUAL INHABITATION / Track 2: “Blood Moon”
At the start of “Blood Moon,” all the usual elements of Fatima Al Qadiri’s body of work are present: the bright, if distorted tropicalia tones, the keyboard-controlled choral vocals, the sense of suspension. But “Blood Moon” is unusual for its drawn-out spaces (even more drawn-out than what we’re used to with Al Qadiri), for its especially low and heavy strings, and for its difficult-to-parse time signature. The oddness of the time signature is particularly evident against the spareness of the composition. “Blood Moon” evokes a certain hollowness, not unlike, perhaps, the hollowness of the deserted post-war landscape:
I was fascinated by the Muslim belief in evil spirits, Jinn. The word “genie” comes from the singular, Arabic term, Jinni. The genie in a bottle is an evil spirit in a bottle. Ever since I was a child, there were all these stories about Jinn being seen everywhere. It’s a taboo subject because it’s believed to be real. I’ve always been fascinated with it because I feel that the Gulf is an extremely haunted, haunting environment—these low-lying buildings with an arid climate. There’s nowhere to go; you just have the horizon and desert. I feel their presence!
– Fatima Al Qadiri, The Creators Project ( September 2011)
(Why does the desert always ring of destruction, forgotten civilizations, etc.? Is this a failing of the collective vision (or of the ear)? A mental projection of the look-and-feel of abandonment onto the desert landscape?
Al Qadiri: “I just felt like these abandoned, un-restored locations in Kuwait lent themselves to an imaginative storyline of spiritual inhabitation.”)
Al Qadiri’s spares compositions are indeed inhabited. “Blood Moon” in particular is infused with a ‘presence.’ Al Qadiri’s lyric unfolds as one’s worst nightmare does: a revisiting of the past so powerful that it threatens the existence of ghosts. A powerful composer indeed, Al Qadiri replaces the sonically uninhabited (the pause, the break, the interlude) with something much more lively: the spirit world. This re-inhabiting occurring at the level of the sonic-phantasmagoric.
PHANTASMAGORIA / Track 4: “Curfew”
The sirens throughout “Curfew” are so intensely alluring that I feel put-off by how much I enjoy them. The track represents one of Al Qadiri’s most successful forays into the phantasmagoric.
Phantasmagoria is the meeting of ‘the phantasm’ (the fear that shadows evoke), gore (death), and sensual pleasure. It is the fatal joy. Phantasmagoria takes its pleasure in the indulgence of one’s terror, or indulges in the pleasure of one’s terror, or simply – indulges. Throughout Brute, Al Qadiri masterfully permutes the sounds of police radios, sirens, crashes, gun clicks, and explosions into pseudo-orchestral (“elegant”) instruments.
In “Curfew,” the wailing sirens are set off by a deep and resonant breakbeat. The relative absence of middle frequencies creates an airy or spacious feeling. This is the airiness, the ‘flight,’ that we associate with the phantasmagoric: ghosts swirling, spirits swooping, a deep voice echoing.
STYLE / Track 5: “Battery”
Besides the fact that its siren-sounds are, by far, the most terrifying on the entire album, “Battery” offers very little in the way of stylistic development. Al Qadiri’s tendency toward the short song is most evident here and “Battery” seems to wrap up before it begins.
That being said, Al Qadiri works perceptively, preferring a kind of sonic precision to a more wholesale sound. This is good. Though, without this in mind, it is possible to listen to all of Brute and feel, many a time, as though something is ‘missing.’
In a 2012 interview with The FADER, when asked about a “conceptual through-line” that ties all of her work together, Al Qadiri states: “It’s style. I’m obsessed with it. Deconstructing style, reinterpreting style, identifying genres, deconstructing genres. Refashioning, readapting, just making it my own.”
How does one listen for the deconstruction of style?
In a review of Al Qadiri’s 2011 release, WARN-U (which Al Qadiri released under the moniker “Ayshay,” meaning “whatever” in Arabic), Pitchfork’s Joe Colly says, “While at times beautiful and certainly inventive, WARN-U is somewhat one-note, and it can be difficult to differentiate between the three short original tracks. It's also free-form to the degree that it can sometimes be difficult to engage with.”
I happen to disagree entirely with Colly about WARN-U. But my criticism of “Battery” might sound remarkably similar. I’m just not sure what happens here.
THE SENTENCE / Track 6: “10-34”
“10-34” is a surprising shift. A panpipe – the kind used extensively throughout Al Qadiri’s debut album, Asiatisch, seems to yearn for something. “10-34” is a sadder song than Al Qadiri usually constructs. Its urgency sneaks up on you rather than announcing itself. It is a rare instance of vulnerability in the composer’s repertoire. Rather than a unified choral mass, as in Al Qadiri’s frequent allusions to Gregorian chant, the vocal instruments on “10-34” are separated by larger, more expansive intervals. As a result, Al Qadiri’s concern with the melody-as-sentence becomes all the more lucid. This special consideration for the melody is, in my mind, what separates Al Qadiri from the pack.
POWER / Track 11: “Power”
By the end of Brute, something has shifted. Al Qadiri gives over to a warmer sound, even evoking some atypically sexy vaporwave vibes in tracks like “Aftermath.” By the time we reach “Power,” we are in the realm of the dark pop anthem, albeit much more abstractly and even obtusely.
(I recall a comment Al Qadiri made on her album, WARN-U (as “Ayshay”). She said that she hoped the songs on the album would be like “pop soundtracks for the faithful.”)
“Power” is epic in its scope, garnering momentum from its subtle homages to grime. The phrase, “People who are drunk off power” repeats throughout the song, in various vocalities. And in that way, “Power” also signals toward a growing interest in this composer’s work: the voice as instrument. Of course, by now, Al Qadiri enthusiasts are already well-acquainted with that Casio keyboard-reminiscent vocal instrument that the composer so often uses, and has used throughout her body of work. But her work as Ayshay and multiple tracks throughout Brute suggest that Al Qadiri is well on her way to reinventing the use of the voice in contemporary music. I do not think that is an overstatement.
That said, Brute felt like a stepping stone. A point along the way in what will hopefully be a series of far-reaching breakthroughs in Al Qadiri’s work.