Review Summary: Though these songs may be difficult to follow, they are nonetheless memorable and consistently interesting. Anyone interested in experimental music with an international sensibility should consider taking a listen.
I like to focus mainly on the actual music on an album or EP when I write about it, but it’s hard to ignore the cover of Warn-U, the debut album by the Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised singer born Fatima Al Qadiri. Simultaneously eerie and eye-watering, the image shows a woman, face obscured by a white veil, bathing in an aquamarine, computer-generated pool of water. Garish, stylized Arabic writing zooms out of the peach-pink background and forms a halo around the bathing figure. The picture hits you in the face, but the sense of exotic mystery and the indeterminate identity of the figure makes the image seem bizarre and alien, like an advertisement on some street in Dubai 50 years in the future.
Though there’s nothing commercial about Ayshay’s music, these songs ooze mystery, exoticism, and religion. Three out of four tracks are interpretations of Islamic worship songs with which Al Qadiri presumably grew up, arranged for intensely manipulated voice. Al Qadiri layers her voice at different pitches, sometimes chipmunking them and other times dropping them to sub-Barry White levels, while keeping an unaffected vocal track in the center to hold it all together. When free of effects, Al Qadiri’s voice is eerie and mysterious but not quite “ghostly” or “unearthly”--she sounds thoroughly like a human, albeit one enrapt by the power of God.
If anyone is thinking of Julianna Barwick, the Christian church singer who released the brilliant The Magic Place earlier this year, it’s not an unreasonable comparison. Both are fascinated with their respective faiths’ religious vocal music and use their own voices to interpret them impressionistically. Yet there are two key differences between Barwick and Ayshay, both of which contribute to the latter’s music becoming significantly less effective than that of the former. Firstly, Barwick does not process her vocals--even the most alien and animal-sounding shrieks on The Magic Place are nothing more than Barwick in the raw. Secondly, while Barwick’s compositions have clear form and structure (usually building up to a musical climax), Ayshay’s are more free-form and can thus be very difficult to follow.
The songs on Warn-U are more or less shapeless, drifting through the listener’s consciousness without finding a place to settle. Though this only heightens the inherent mystery present in Ayshay’s music, it may also distract from its enjoyability to listeners that are not well-versed in music as avant-garde as this. In addition, many people familiar with the works released on Tri Angle Records will be surprised. Tri Angle is best known for fostering the microgenre known as witch house or drag, which is essentially instrumental crunk with goth and shoegaze influences. There isn’t much beat on Warn-U, save for what sounds like beatboxing on the title track.
That’s where L.A. production duo Nguzunguzu comes in. The album’s final track is their 12-minute megamix of the other three songs on the EP, with beats and instruments added in to support Al Qadiri’s layers of vocals. It’s certainly the place in which the album is most accessible--there is a solid form to Nguzunguzu’s mix, and there’s no shortage of rhythm. Yet with Al Qadiri’s vocals regulated to the background, the qualities that make the other songs so intriguing disappear. The religion is gone, as is much of the exotic allure. All that’s left is a twelve-minute groove that might be more effective did it not contrast so dramatically in both style and feel from the rest of the EP. Despite this split between the original material and the Nguzunguzu mix (which takes up over half the EP), there is something to be found in both. Though the songs may be difficult to follow, they are nonetheless memorable and consistently interesting. Anyone interested in experimental music with an international sensibility should consider taking a listen.