How do you make music about war? Tchaikovsky asked orchestras to drag cannons along with them — to reproduce the actual sounds of battle. There aren't any cannons on Desert Strike, producer Fatima Al Qadiri's new EP — one track opens with a gunshot — but the album is just as interested in the experience of war than the 1812 Overture was. It just borrows heavily from a different, though no less relevant, sonic palette: video games and popular music.
The First Gulf War "is a subject I've wanted to address for years," Al Qadiri writes over email. "I'm not a writer," she says, and couldn't write a memoir about her "experience as a child during the occupation of Kuwait and First Gulf War." But Desert Strike is a memoir nonetheless — "a sort of abstract audio memoir," she says.
The EP's name is lifted Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, the thinly-fictionalized Gulf War video game, which Al Qadiri bought for the Sega Megadrive and played obsessively with her sister for years. A year earlier, a U.S.-led coalition force had pushed an invading Iraqi army out of Kuwait, prompting Al Qadiri to write her first song. "I had experienced so much trauma and didn't know how to express it," she told Fader last year. "I made this really sad, minor key melody on the keyboard and I played it to myself every day."
If that minor-key melody was Al Qadiri's first response to the war, Desert Strike — the EP — could be seen as the mature extension of a nine-year-old's keyboard experiment, shaped by the cultural products that have since mediated Al Qadiri's memories and experiences of the invasion of Kuwait. It has video-game music in its marrow (each track on the EP has a title like a video game level: "Ghost Raid," "Oil Well," "Hydra"), but gutted and opened up and thrown off kilter: spare instead of frenetic, haunting rather than bombastic.
And grime, the British rap genre, which she's been "captivated by" since it broke wide in the early 2000s. "I wanted the sound of the record to reflect a child-like innocence warped in the midst of a terrifying and surreal adult reality," Al Qadiri says. Grime, she felt, was a perfect touchstone: "Grime is a genre that somehow encapsulates the sound of innocence and war, as well as being marked by a video game FX palette."
Al Qadiri describes Desert Strike as an "homage to grime," but it's also a response: a masterful piece of work exploring the links between war and violence and representation and growing up. It also bangs. You can listen to the full EP below.