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Fatima Al Qadiri: Medieval Femme

The title of Kuwaiti electronic composer, artist and singer Fatima Al Qadiri’s third solo album puts forward its theme in the same kind of forthright way as her 2016 protest album Brute did. Like Brute and Asiatisch – and in fact all of her EPs – before it, Medieval Femme is more or less a concept album, its ten delicate songs drawing on medieval Arab literature women from history, literature and myth. Although still entirely electronic, it’s a far more gentle and ethereal album than much of her work – not least her previous mainstream release, the dance-oriented, ultra-contemporary and slightly silly EP Shaneera. Like that EP, Medieval Femme explores different facets of femininity, but this time with a gently yearning, nostalgic, light-filled sound that evokes the distant past with a futuristic sheen.

Kicking off with a kind of statement of intent, the title track is a tune made of descending, reverberating notes and unearthly celestial singing, a little reminiscent of a band like The Cranes, but with an airy sparse beauty of its own. The contrast with Shaneera and its high camp intensity could hardly be more extreme. The short instrumental “A Certain Concubine” continues in a similarly delicate vein, its koto-like plucked string sound evoking a mood that to western listeners at least, seems more East Asian than Arabic. The way the richly humming electronic tones harmonise and blend with the traditional-sounding elements is a microcosm of the album itself; a seamless blend of modernity and tradition. “Sheba” is, if anything even more hauntingly half-familiar, the poignant melody of its church organ-like tones complemented by more deeply reverberating atmospherics and what might be a distant human voice.

It’s a piece of music that looks more to Al Qadiri’s soundtrack work than her previous albums and EPs although it has a sparse sound pallet compared to her award-winning 2019 Atlantics soundtrack. “Vanity” is another contrast; more of a song than anything that precedes it, or possibly two songs; one mesmerisingly slow and simple one with a deep, seductive vocal, the other consisting of light and busy electronica not unlike some of Aphex Twin’s early ambient work. The aspects work well together, but like some of the album’s other tracks the result is, though ravishingly pretty, more like a beautifully enigmatic fragment than a finished, rounded song. “Stolen Kiss of a Succubus” is even more fragmentary but just as lovely, a couple of minutes of a simple repeated scale and languorous atmospheric noise. Like much of the album, it has a poignant, yearning quality and a sense of mystery and familiarity. As with the album as a whole, the closer the song is listened to, the less there seems to be to it, but not in an unsatisfying way.

The harsher, buzzing tone and childlike vocal of “Golden” is haunting in an entirely different way, its dislocated, lost in space vocals and swathes of Vangelis-like synth making for a kind of hypnotic melancholy that is astringent where most of the album is sweet. With the following “Qasmuna (Dreaming),” it forms a brief kind of anti-oasis amid the otherworldly beauty of the album; another less tranquil piece, “Qasmuna…” breaks the smooth surface of the music with unexpected dissonant shards of sound. “Malaak” is a return to a more ethereal sound, but still infused with darkness, it pulses with a kind of melancholy desire and sensuality. “Tasakuba” evokes the elegiac words of the 8th century Arabian poet Al-Khansa and matches the rhythms of her verse with music that is equally timeless, modern in its use of sounds but strangely archaic. And finally, the closing track, “Zandaq” is similarly retro-futuristic, its tones; lute, flute, something like a synthesised voice, chimes – coming together in a way which could only be from the 21st century, but feels hundreds of years older. A little like some of Bowie and Eno’s experimental pieces from “Heroes”, it vividly conjures other times and places before leaving the listener almost abruptly, with a lingering sense of mystery.

Like the Atlantics soundtrack, Medieval Femme is an immersive album, but at just over half an hour it feels like a surprisingly short dip into potentially deep waters. That’s both its strength and weakness as an album; on the one hand it leaves the listener wanting more, on the other it doesn’t give them it – perhaps in the end a good thing as the album’s drowsy sense of sweetness and longing relies on Fatima Al Qadiri’s formidable lightness of touch for its effect.

Fatima Al Qadiri’s third album is a thing of fragile, otherworldly beauty, a triumph of traditional-themed electronica where style may seem to triumph over substance; but in fact the two are interchangeable
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Fragments of Beauty
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