The Lead Review: Rory Gibb On Fatima Al Qadiri’s Brute

The explorations of police brutality and state oppression on Fatima Al Qadiri's second album for Hyperdub are most effective when they're at their most subtle, writes Rory Gibb

Some of the main themes informing Hyperdub, from its early years as a web magazine into its founding as a record label, concerned relationships between sound, state control and public use of space. These often related to the unfolding history of the hardcore continuum and the implict and explict politics of British post-rave musics, many of which were seeded during early conflicts between ravers and authorities (famously leading to 1994’s Criminal Justice And Public Order Act). By the time the label was founded in 2004, both grime and dubstep, the two emerging London genres that Hyperdub was most closely associated with, had developed their own distinctive relationships with the physical and social geographies of their surroundings — dubstep diffuse, reverberant and sprawling; grime dense, brittle and often rooted in specific narratives relating to local crews or neighbourhoods. Simultaneously, during his doctoral research founder Steve Goodman (Kode9) was exploring deployment of sound as a means to induce fear in both military and domestic contexts, leading to his 2009 book Sonic Warfare. This was all occurring in a post-9/11 context of heightening security, in-the-red terrorism threat levels, increasing Western military interventions in the Middle East and rising Islamophobia. Over a decade later and these discourses have long since seeped into the fabric of everyday life, creating a slow-burning atmosphere of perma-crisis pockmarked by eruptions of violence.

It feels fitting, then, that Fatima Al Qadiri’s second album Brute is a Hyperdub record (as was its predecessor Asiatisch), in that it’s the first music on the label besides Kode9’s own to explicitly take on some of these ideas. The album’s concept is framed strongly in post-Ferguson terms, relating especially to state brutality and murders of black people at the hands of US police forces. Implicit in the background are other connected violences — suppression of protest, oppression of marginalised groups, invasive state surveillance. In terms of concept this all makes for an interesting gambit in light of some previous work by Al Qadiri, whose strongest record to date, 2012’s Desert Strike EP, obliquely explored her experiences as a child growing up in Kuwait during the Iraq invasion and subsequent first Gulf War. Brute opens with a recent recording of police dispersing a protesting crowd using a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) — a non-lethal sonic weapon also procured, Goodman recounts in Sonic Warfare, by the US Marine Corps in Iraq following the 2003 invasion — swiftly followed by a shock barrage of gunshots and the sound of bodies hurrying to escape. Progressive use of such equipment in urban protest contexts, noted Stephen Graham in Cities Under Siege (2010), has become a hallmark of a modern world in which “the techniques of high-tech urban warfare — from unmanned drones to the partitioning of space by walls and biometric check points — increasingly provide models for the reorganisation of domestic urban space."

Al Qadiri’s post-processing of this recording is minimal enough to keep its narrative and clear polemical intentions intact. The same is true of others like it dotted throughout the album, as on ‘Blows’, which opens with a mock mainstream newsreader report: “This weekend a few troublemakers turned a peaceful protest against Wall Street greed into a violent burst of chaos. The troublemakers carried pepper spray and guns, and were wearing badges.” Yet treated with daubs of reverb and half-shrouded in the foggy synthetic tones that are characteristic of her music, the effect is to place the listener somewhere distanced from the action. You’re left with the impression of experiencing events from a detached vantage point, most likely mediated through a laptop screen (an approach, on tracks like ’Fragmentation’, reminiscent of the time-space distortions of M.E.S.H’s 2015 album Piteous Gate).

The same glazed affect is constant throughout Brute — Al Qadiri’s signature glassy, vaporous hi-def melodies are uniformly turned a shade darker than on the more cartoonish Asiatisch. While her music has always audibly nodded towards grime, what’s also immediately noticeable is how strongly the genre’s influence permeates Brute. Its sonic signifiers are scattered everywhere— rat-ta-tat percussion suggesting gunshots, those signature zig-zagging one-finger melodies and, of course, the intermittent whine of police sirens. ’10-34’ offers a surprise (subconscious?) riff on the plummeting vocal melody from Mala’s DMZ anthem ‘Changes’, while the spaghetti western-esque ’Battery’ recalls spartan Wiley riddims like ‘Fire Hydrant’. But even at its most upbeat — the bracing click ‘n’ clatter of ‘Breach’ and ‘Curfew’ — the mood is unrelentingly melancholic, and the energy levels relatively muted. Despite the forcefulness of its concept, Brute thus often feels less like music of protest than music of exhaustion, confusion, and diffuse rage. This can make for an oppressive and tiring listen, but at best its effect is unsettling, and suggestive of traumatised detachment — a familiar enough reaction to the barrage of grim reports that make up the daily online news churn.

It’s become commonplace to hear grime’s influence right across the spectrum of contemporary club music, especially following its recent re-up in popularity and the explosion of hybrid forms adopting its sonic and rhythmic traits. In the context of Brute‘s overall themes, Al Qadiri’s nods to the genre recall grime’s own politics of resistance and history of struggles with police prejudice in inner London — manifest in racial profiling and stop-and-search, club and venue closures and the infamous Form 696. Yet there’s still a nagging dissonance between that historical specificity and Brute’s rather more generalised mood of societal stress and dread. As with the cover art’s sculpture of a Teletubby in riot gear, you’re often left thinking and feeling something about state oppression and the right to protest — but that something is often a blurred impression rather than anything more concrete.

With that in mind, Brute‘s gunshots and sirens and mood of smoky paranoia continue an ongoing fascination in Al Qadiri’s work with cultural tropes — those stereotyped signifiers that are so frequently deployed, and so immediately recognisable, that they become objects of cliche. In the context of electronic music, stylistic tropes are often the historical connective tissue linking a piece of music to its parent genres’ original social contexts, and as such are laden with questions around authenticity and power: in a highly-networked music scene where new innovations rapidly go global, who is using what sonic and rhythmic ideas, and why? Al Qadiri’s music to date has offered some examples of how playing with these questions can make for thought-provoking work. Early EP Genre-Specific Xperience presented several melted-down genre studies dissecting out traits from footwork, grime, techno and footwork — at once highlighting and blurring their varied origin points. Her debut album, 2014’s Asiatisch, aimed to interrogate ideas around an “imagined China” produced through long-sustained Western cultural tropes. Yet its method — of creating a fascimile of kitschy orientalism so perfectly rendered that it often itself seemed to be doing its own orientalising — made for a strange and often uncomfortable listen.

The overt narrative framings of Brute and Asiatisch highlight the way Al Qadiri’s work seeks to create collages of themes — a bricolage approach that’s effective in bringing together ideas and allowing them to interact, even if the musical results aren’t always as successful. It’s perhaps telling that Desert Strike, still her most powerful and lingering complete record, is also the one that’s felt the least pinned in place by its concept. Similarly, the moments when Brute really comes to life are those when it leaves overt references behind and heads towards starker and more emotionally ambiguous places. ‘Blood Moon’ gathers massed crowds of synthetic voices and muffled bass that pricks the hairs like hot breath on the back of the neck, while the plucked strings and choral song of ‘Fragmentation’ ring out through deserted space, suggesting a walk through a vast sacred city. Lastly, the spiralling ouroboros-like melodies of ‘Oubliette’ and ‘Power’ recall the nightmarish clockwork time-trap setpiece in the second Ghost In The Shell film — in which the ghosthacked protagonist finds himself trapped in a repeating scenario that becomes more ostensibly familiar, yet ever more grotesque and horrifyingly unpredictable, with each iteration. As a sonic metaphor for the feeling of abject powerlessness in the face of escalating state violence, it’s all the more forceful for its subtlety.

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