Sonic Surgery

A Rash of Revolt

Why do I mention these events in a music column? Blame "Abu Ghraib" -- not the prison or the scandal but the protest song by Montreal musician Deadbeat, a.k.a. Scott Monteith. When I say protest song, you probably think of acoustic guitars and Joan Baez. This is different. Deadbeat makes tense, shadowy techno. "Abu Ghraib" is a protest song for the new millennium. It's also a protest song with no lyrics. How do you make a protest song with no lyrics? Good question.

The track sets out with thumping bass -- fat, bulbous thrums that pick up speed, sending out sparks of synth chirps. Filled out with a pendulous bass line and jittery electronic warbles, the song has a shuffle to it, a mechanical one, like a bent wheel that spins with a lopsided limp. Insistently, it careens forward, a piece of factory machinery that's been cranked up beyond its limits, the whole thing about to blow.

Where you locate the political content is up to you. Maybe it's in the image of a system on the brink of collapse. Maybe in the juxtaposition of the addicting groove against the title, how that unsettling combination parallels the horrific images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated as our political leaders tell us that everything is going just fine.

Monteith has said, "My hope is that these types of songs have the ability to create a sort of virtual space within which dialogue can happen about these topics between listeners, or as in this case, myself and a journalist."

What I like about this tune is that unlike something by, say, Country Joe & the Fish, something didactic and humorless, "Abu Ghraib" does nothing more than put the music in a particular context, namely the war. "Abu Ghraib" doesn't hit us over the head but merely asks us to ponder its thumps and beeps within the framework of these atrocities; it's not trying to fix our attention on politics, but it's not allowing us to dismiss them either. It does a commendable job of letting the sadder parts of the world seep in without letting them weigh the song -- or the listener -- down entirely. -- Garrett Kamps

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