A Dusted Review: Asiatisch by Fatima Al Qadiri (May 1st, 2014)

Asiatisch is Senegal-born and Kuwait-based artist Fatima Al Qadiri’s sonic portrayal of an imagined China, something that immediately feels like a risky foray. Her jumping-off point is a microgenre known as sinogrime, pioneered by the likes of Wiley and Kode9 in the UK, which takes vaguely Chinese sounds and adds them to grime’s ebullient form of millennial post-hip-hop, casting a gaze beyond the old superpowers that are the U.S. and Europe and toward the emerging economic giant that is China. Arguably, Al Qadiri attempts to go even further, firmly anchoring her album in Asia through its title. However, Asiatisch ends up getting no closer to the reality of China as a reality than Wiley did on “Blue Rizla.”

To be fair, as stated, it was clearly never Al Qadiri’s intention to go beyond the realms of her own mind, but one can’t help but feel that Asiatisch is a missed opportunity. From the get-go, it’s an album that misleads and confuses, even as Al Qadiri’s talents as a producer are revealed to be unquestionable. Nine of the 10 tracks on Asiatisch are tightly coiled and finely detailed, with synths, vocals and samples of occasionally hard-to-place Eastern sounds. Preceding those nine, however, is the album’s most startling track, “Shanzhai,” a cover of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing To Compares 2 U” apparently sung by Helen Feng in nonsensical Mandarin. (Although, not speaking the language, I’m relying on someone else’s assertion there.)

Its dreamy, retro-feeling synth backdrop and detached vocals stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the album — such as the ghostly pipes that swerve around the spectral wordless vocals, the tingling chime sounds and juddery non-beats on “Szechuan” or the hypnotic, ice-cold shuffle and gibberish, mechanical voice snippets of “Wudang.” Most of the tracks have a sort of lopsided gait, neither propulsive nor minimal but somewhere in-between. The abortive lurches are used as counterpoints to the other sounds, as opposed to building blocks for a foundation. When this is not the case, as on the moody “Shenzhen,” the pace is always somewhat sedate, as opposed to the hyperactivity of “regular” grime, as if Al Qadiri is trying to channel a sort of Eastern mysticism.

This abstract collage of faux Chinese imagery both makes and undermines Asiatisch, for the vision feels like a mixture of caricature, dream and stereotype, with very little of anything actually Chinese filtering through. Even though Al Qadiri was born in Senegal and was raised in Kuwait, Asiatisch feels very much like a Western view of China, with references to forged commodity goods, impersonal shopping malls and Hollywood films. One of the album’s better tracks, the robotic, intense “Dragon Tattoo,” features a dispassionate voice whispering, “I’ve got a dragon tattoo on my arm / and I need to cause you harm,” but the song is about authentically Asian as the samurai scenes in Kill Bill. Admittedly, Al Qadiri makes no illusions of trying to capture the reality of China, and she’s very much operating in an imaginary sphere. But in doing so, any chance to comment on the world — China and beyond — is lost. I think of British synth-pop band Japan’s masterpiece Tin Drum, which admittedly dealt with a very different vision of China, but which nonetheless managed to channel something real and emotional.

In contrast, Asiatisch is impersonal and airtight. Musically, the album is fascinating, diverse and expertly produced. But a chance was perhaps missed to deliver something with more to say.

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A Dusted Review: Chance of Rain by Laurel Halo (January 16th, 2014)

Confession time. Unlike many (most?), I failed to grasp the appeal of Laurel Halo’s highly-acclaimed Quarantine album last year. Which is not to say I disliked it, per se, it just left me nonplussed, which was all the more frustrating because I’d loved her earlier Hour Logic EP. I could definitely see the talent involved in Quarantine, but it just didn’t touch me the way it did others, which may be my own fault. Who knows?

All I can say with any certainty is that, with Chance of Rain, I am well and truly back in love with the music of Laurel Halo. Hell, I am dim enough that, if I didn’t “get” one of her works, it probably means I am lacking some neurological function that she and others happen to possess. If Chance of Rain confirms anything, it’s that Laurel Halo is almost certainly a step ahead of me, and always has been, which makes approaching her music that much more enriching.

I feel like an illiterate who’s just had Shakespeare explained to him (and no, I don’t always “get” The Bard, either): I’m aware I’m the stupid one, but still not sure why, although I’m happy to revel in my ignorance.

Chance of Rain casts me back to a gig Halo performed last year in London’s trendy Shoreditch. Inside a tiny room packed to the rafters, and bolstered by a righteous sound system, she had already cast Quarantine’s half-songs to the back of her mind, instead delivering a pulsating, angular set of jerky post-techno.  It’s this live presence that she encapsulates on her latest album. Tracks such as “Oneiroi”, “Serendip” and “Ainnome” are sharp, edgy and driven by a singular approach to rhythm that takes electronic conventions and tips them sideways. Beats are shortened until they become staccato hiccups or gently lingered upon in a trance-like haze. Unlike a lot of modern electronica that takes its cues from dubstep’s bass revival, Halo’s tracks are spindly. They’re dominated less by dropped bass lines than by the omnipresence of body-shifting rhythmic pulsations and crystalline synth patterns.

As in Quarantine, these tracks seem to constantly shift out of focus. They’re not quite pop, but neither are they perfectly tailored for the dance floor. Of course, they’ll make you shift your ass in a semblance of dance, but there remains a certain uneasy aloofness that just makes them more fascinating. Even when signposts to previous artists’ work seem to emerge (the jerking shuffle on “Oneiroi” occasionally evokes William Bennett’s brutalist Cut Hands project, the languid loping beats on “Serendip” and “Ainnome” call to mind a more minimal The Field, and there are hints of footwork at play on “Thrax”), they are quickly swallowed by the idiosyncrasies of Halo”s thoughtful personality. There is more at play here than just rhythm.

The disparate forms and tempos on Chance of Rain might easily have seemed distracting, but there is a singular vision at work here. On shorter, interlude-like, tracks such as “Dr. Echt” and “Melt”, Halo toys with elements of broken down ambient music, whilst tracks like “Thrax” and “Still/Dromos” are infused with slight hints of jazz, house and funk. In a world where electronic music is omnipresent, Laurel Halo succeeds on Chance of Rain in creating a distinctive voice, one that never allows the listener to settle into a sense of security.