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Archive for the ‘CD reviews – Indian bands’ Category

Three Indian rock albums you should check out


OVER the past few years, there’s been an increase in the number of album releases by English-singing Indian rock acts. If the field was earlier restricted to a select few like Indus Creed, Gary Lawyer, Pentagram, Brahma, Millennium, Agni and Skinny Alley, one has seen many others get into the record release space, either through well-known labels or private distribution.

One of the highlights of 2012 was the recording return of Indus Creed, which released an album after a 17-year gap. ‘Evolve’, which had three earlier members and two new ones, was reviewed earlier in this blog last May.

The past 12 months have seen hectic activity in both mainstream Indian rock and metal. Here, we review three albums that particularly impressed us, with the sheer quality of their musicianship. Interestingly, one is an eight-song single album of 30 minutes, one is a three-CD set of 28 songs, and one is a four-song EP. Here they go:

element

Element of Surprise ― Babu N Friends (Manta Records): A senior guitarist, Babu Choudhary is well-known on the Mumbai musical scene. Over the past few years, he has collaborated with many other musicians, and released the albums ‘The Electric Sky’ and ‘Somewhere Out There’ under the name Babu N Friends.

Choudhary’s latest album ‘Element of Surprise’, released last year, has appearances by guitarists Ehsaan Noorani, Arjun Sen and Kolkata veteran Amyt Datta, slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke, bassists Storms and Mohini Dey, drummer Ranjit Barot, keyboardist Zubin Balaporia, saxophonist Carl Clements and singer Shefali Alvarez, among others. And the great thing about this eight-track collection is that it has plenty of variety, as the songs smoothly blend rock, jazz, the blues, funk and fusion.

The four instrumental pieces are first-rate. ‘Shanti (for Amma’), which fuses a Yanniesque New Age sound with a Floyd-like ambience, has some moody keyboards by Jarviz Menezes and slide guitar by Sontakke. ‘Bablues’ starts off with a vocal  chant, but settles down with some impeccable guitaring by Arjun Sen, Amyt Datta and Chaudhary himself, with a neat keyboard interlude by Jarvis Menezes and tight drumming by Barot and basswork by Storms.

‘Boogie Hill’ has a smart jazz-rock groove, with Arjun Sen and Chaudhury on guitars, Sontakke on slide, Barot on drums and a marvellous bass stretch by Mohini Dey. Though one feels the end is a bit abrupt, this is an awesome number. Also on the instrumental list is the final number ‘Song for Shama’, which has charming tenor saxophone by Carl Clements, neat keyboards by Balaporia and marvellous guitaring by Ehsaan Noorani, Arjun Sen and Chaudhary. The song is very reminiscent of the 70s jazz-rock-funk fusion era, and this is the kind of piece you’ll play on repeat mode.

Of the vocal tracks, the opener ‘I Like IT Ruff’ features singer Jarvis Marcedo, and has a funk-meets-smooth jazz feel and a Santanaesque guitar solo by Chaudhary. ‘Walk’, which uses cello and strings, has vocals and guitar by Gerson D’Souza, who sounds particularly expressive on the lines “Screaming lungs make no sound.”  ‘Mr Preacher’, which has Marcedo again on vocals, has ironic lines like “Mr Preacher, made of flaws, Mr Preacher, breaking laws,” and a well-constructed horn section.

One of the clear winners is ‘Les Gurugiri’, which sees singer Shefali Alvares in prime form. Dedicated to music teachers, the song has lines like ‘O Guruji, give me your learning to feed my yearning, so I can become me.” The song has some masterly guitaring by Amyt Datta and Chaudhary.

Besides the variety, what’s welcome is that each song has been superbly produced and arranged. As such, ‘Element of Surprise’ never ceases to surprise.

thermal

3 Wheels 9 Lives – Thermal and a Quarter (EMI Music): Thermal and a Quarter, or TAAQ, is a three-piece band from Bangalore, comprising Bruce Lee Mani on vocals and guitar, Rajeev Rajagopal on drums and Prakash K N on bass. With brilliant solos, plenty of improvisation and a sound that amalgamates rock with jazz and the blues, the band has always been a treat to hear at live gigs.

This time, the band takes the risk of releasing a three-CD set, which includes two CDs of new songs and one containing singles created between 2010 and 2012. That makes it 28 songs in all ― a gutsy thing to do at a time when people are not going in for more than 10 or 12 songs at a time. The negative side to this is that it also requires a bit of patience to listen to each single CD at a stretch, especially when some songs or five or six minutes long.

The title ‘3 Wheels 9 Lives’ is dedicated to Bangalore’s autorickshaw (public three-wheeler) drivers, and the second song ‘Metre Mele One-and-a-Half’ actually talks of how they always charge one and a half times the fare.  In fact, one finds a few references to Bangalore, like in the song ‘Bangalore Flower’, which has the lines: “She’s a flower, a Bangalore flower, she’s got me in the zone.”

The highlight of the album is Mani’s consistent guitaring, and one hears some fabulous work on the numbers ‘Surrender’, ‘De-arranged’ and ‘Origami’. Other winners are ‘Terrible Trouble’, with its infectious hook, the peppy ‘If Them Blues’ and ‘For The Cat’, dedicated to singer Cat Stevens (check the lines, “A quiet calm in a wild world”).

On initial hearing, one may sense a certain sameness on many songs. But for variety, we have ‘Sad Moon’, which has vocals by the talented Priya Mendens, the instrumental ‘Ho-hum’ and the well-produced ‘Birthday’, which has a slight Beatles influence.

The bonus tracks include popular numbers like ‘Something You Said’ and ‘Kickbackistan’, but the real treats come from the live versions of ‘Mighty Strange’, with its tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone and keyboards, and ‘One Small Love’, which has amazing Carnatic flute by Ravi Kulur.

Though the sheer length may irk some, the truth is that the songs grow on regular listening. TAAQ has been around since 1996, releasing four albums before. ‘3 Wheels 9 Lives’ is one of their obvious career highlights.

spud

Attention, Please (EP) Spud in the Box (Asli Music): Mumbai-based Spud in the Box is a relatively new band which has been regular on the live circuit. It’s being described as an alternative pop-rock band, and the good thing is that it’s pretty eclectic, drawing influences from rock, jazz, the blues, pop, folk and even a bit of Indian and western classical.

The EP, launched last month at Mumbai’s Blue Frog, has four tracks, and comes at a very affordable ₹ 60. Besides the tight instrumentation and excellent production, what’s really impressive is the quality of lyrics. For instance, the opening song, ‘Lens Life’ begins with the lines: “Lens life, I’ve been leading a lens life, I see the world through my filtered eyes; Lens life, I’ve been living a lens life, I know the world isn’t black and white.”

‘Lens Life’, which starts slowly and picks up tempo with a strong bassline and keyboards, is the kind of song that will grow on you. The next number ‘Attention, Please’ has a gorgeous guitar part, strong harmonies, and the lines: “You fall down on your homeground, you got your bruised knees; but nothing can hurt you like kisses and sympathy.”

‘Train of thought’ begins with a percussion beat, followed by keyboards and guitars, and the lines: “I can’t seem to recognise this face in the mirror, this familiar stranger.” The vocals in the higher register are rendered charmingly. Finally, ‘More than Once’ is very peppy for a couple of minutes and starts with the superb lines: “Once in a while I’ve been alone, once every night.” It changes direction after that with a short piano stretch and vibrant classical sargams, but somehow seems a bit stretched with an additional piano solo after a pause.

All in all, a very commendable effort by the band, which comprises Rohan Rajadhyaksha on keyboards and vocals, Ankit Dayal on vocals and guitar, Siddharth Talwar, Hartej Sawhney and session member Arjun Tandon on guitars, Zubin Bhatena on bass and Vivaan Kapoor on drums and percussion. Of particular note is the way the lead vocals have been accompanied by harmonies and back-ups. Among the younger bands, Spud In The Box really thinks out of the box.

CD review/ Topiwalleh – Swarathma


Topiwalleh/ Swarathma

Genre: Folk/ fusion

OML Entertainment/ Rs 150

Rating: ****

WHEN the members of Bangalore band Swarathma stepped on to the stage of Mumbai’s Blue Frog on May 16, the audience would have instantly noticed their get-up. With colourful designer clothes specially tailored to blend Indian and western, traditional and contemporary, they were making a statement.  And like their costumes, their music was a distinct amalgam too, fusing Indian folk and semi-classical elements with rock, funk and reggae.

Swarathma was releasing its second album ’Topiwalleh’, and for the next couple of hours, the packed house was treated to a scintillating, foot-stomping live performance. Though the songs were new to most listeners, they had the kind of tunes that appealed instantly. With his brilliant and versatile vocal delivery, Vasu Dixit was accompanied by an outstanding group of musicians — guitarist Varun Murali, violinist Sanjeev Nayak, bassist Jishnu Dasgupta, drummer Montry Manuel and percussionist Pavan Kumar KJ. Everybody was spot-on.

For the past few days, the Swarathma CD has been playing on his blogger’s music system at regular intervals, alternating with Indus Creed’s marvellous ‘Evolve’ and Richard Hawley’s sensational psychedelic space rock set ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’. What’s most impressive about ‘Topiwalleh’ is its variety, the marvellous instrumentation and lyrics that talk of subjects like corruption, consumerism, child abuse, communalism and media sensationalism.

Stylistically, one finds some very obvious influences here and there, ranging from Indian Ocean, Jal, The Edge and Led Zeppelin to Silk Route, RD Burman, AR Rahman and L Subramaniam. But what clearly works in the album’s favour is the sheer consistency maintained throughout. Moreover, besides the intelligence of the lyrics, what distinguishes these songs is the way Nayak’s outstanding violin has been used to give a special flavour.

The title track has a strong bass-driven reggae beat, and Dixit’s dig at politicians “Sar pe haath daale, khali pet  maare, topiwalleh” is followed by a catchy chorus and smart guitar solo. The hard-rocking ‘Kooraane’, which is about people’s tendency to go in for free things and discounts, begins with the sound of howling wild dogs, and has a spectacular guitar wah-wah solo and a sizzling violin stretch straight out of the L Subramaniam songbook.

‘Rishton Ka Raasta’ is a pleasant slowdown of tempo, with a dream-like folksy pizzicato and bowed violin intro, smooth backing vocals, a crisp guitar stretch, and shades of Rahman and Silk Route. ‘Khul ja’ starts with a folksy percussion, and the catchy vocals ‘Khul ja re, khul ja re sim-sim, khul ja re, jab koi rasta ho bandh’ are accompanied by a U2-like guitar backdrop.

‘Ghum’ is a hard-hitting number on child abuse —haunting acoustic guitar lines, hard-rocking interludes, jungle-like effects and a sudden falsetto back-up vocal stretch enhance it musically. Next comes the peppy youth-friendly Kannada number ‘Naane Daari’, which effortlessly blends rock and funk.  ‘Aaj Ki Taaza Fikar’ is a witty look at how the media hypes trivial things, and features some amazing guitaring, and a collage of random sound bytes to symbolise channel-surfing.

‘Mukhote’, which talks of hypocrisy and falsehoods, has an extra-catchy hook and sing-along vibe. Singer Shubha Mudgal makes a guest appearance on the stylishly-composed ‘Duur Kinara’, which intersperses an Amir Khusrau verse and a traditional Kumaoni tune with Kannada lyrics and a subtly-thrown English backdrop. And finally, ‘Yeshu Allah Aur Krishna’ has a extremely catchy groove, a narrative semi-spoken style, neat voice modulation and wonderful lines which use the character of Sant Kabir as a motif.

Cynics may argue that the Swarathma formula isn’t new. True. From the Colonial Cousins and Indian Ocean in the 90s, Indian musicians have been doing vocal numbers mixing Indian elements with western rock and pop. Even in Pakistan, Junoon, Mekaal Hassan Band and Fuzon have blended Sufiana and classical influences with rock and jazz.

Over the past few years, more and more Indian groups have been producing some excellent music in this category. Besides Swarathma, we have Delhi band Advaita, Bangalore’s Raghu Dixit, Avial from Kerala and Yodhakaa from Chennai, who add a contemporary sound to Sanskrit devotional chants.

Various marketing terms have been used to describe this genre. Some call it indie, some alternative, some underground and some fusion (which some bands dislike). However, such names tend to limit a band’s appeal and reach. What’s important, primarily, is the quality of the music.

Musically, ‘Topiwalleh’ has that charm. A lot of effort and plenty of grey cells have obviously gone into the creation of each song, as is obvious from the way words are used, structures changed and newer elements introduced. Yet, there is something about the tunes which could appeal to mainstream audiences too, and not just to the elitist and underground. They have that singular quality that attracts any listener — a wonderful hook. In short, Swarathma rocks.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

CD review/ Evolve – Indus Creed


 

Evolve/ Indus Creed

Genre: Rock

Universal Music/ Rs 175

Rating: ****

MOST of my memories of Indus Creed are associated with the Independence Rock festival, held at the now-defunct Rang Bhavan in Mumbai. That was back in the mid-90s, when India’s best-known rock group had changed its name from Rock Machine, and then released its self-titled album. Their songs ‘Pretty Child’, ‘Rock n Roll Renegade’, ‘Top Of The Rock, ‘Trapped’ and ‘Sleep’ were compulsory at most gigs, and one felt sad when the band members decided to follow other paths.

Most Indian rock fans would have thought the Indus Creed chapter had ended for good, but the group bounced back with a reunion concert at Mumbai’s Hard Rock Café in October 2010. Three old-timers — vocalist Uday Benegal, guitarist Mahesh Tinaikar and keyboardist Zubin Balaporia — were joined by new entrants Rushad Mistry on bass and  Jai Row Kavi on drums. At that event, the band quite clearly proved how they had evolved, and it was therefore appropriate that they christened their latest album ‘Evolve’.

Coming 17 years after their last album, ‘Evolve’ sees a clear progression for the band. The production qualities are first-rate, the sound is contemporary and each musician contributes equally, with Benegal’s vocals in prime form, Tinaikar world-class on the guitar, Balaporia churning out some exquisite keyboardwork, and Mistry and Row Kavi extra-tight on the rhythm section. What’s more, there is variety.

Each of the eight songs has something to offer. ‘Fireflies’ sets the tempo perfectly, beginning with acoustic guitars and keyboards, before Benegal’s charming vocals impress on lines like “Oh the sun went out today, for reasons you won’t say, and I just can’t look away from those fireflies”. A great build-up and wonderful hook make this a clear winner. The seven-minute-plus ‘Dissolve’ has an anthemic feel, a stunning guitar-driven start, neat changes in tempo, and a couple of spitfire guitar solos in between.

The band comes up with a true surprise with ‘The Money’, an electro-funk track which begins with some marvellous drumming, and lines about how stealing money can “shame the whole community”. With that wonderful keyboard interlude and catchy rhythm, this has the makings of a live favourite.

‘Take It Harder’ is marked by sing-along vocals, angst-ridden lyrics and a crisp guitar solo, whereas ‘No Disgrace’ is embellished by lines like “Did they trample on your dreams, smash them all to smithereens, past the point of no return, maybe someday we will learn”. The best composition of the album is probably ‘Come Around’, which questions someone who has left his family, has a later-day Beatles influence, smart acoustic guitar and keyboards, and an energetic ending.

The shortest piece ‘Bulletproof’ is a brisk, quick-tempo number which again has great live potential, whereas the final number ‘Goodbye’ has very relatable lines like “The bigger the dreams, the harder the tears will fall’ and “Living separate lives doesn’t have to be goodbye”.

Another thing that works in the album’s favour is the right-pricing. At ₹ 175, it’s truly affordable.  Over the years, Indian rock has never really sold in huge quantities, probably because of inadequate marketing by the labels, some absurd pricing, and more recently, downloading. If musicians are regularly releasing new material, it is more because of their own passion and their loyalty towards fans. As such, it would be appropriate if Indian rock buffs and Indus Creed fans pass on a simple message— please buy the album, and don’t rip it just because you’ll get it for free.

As for Rock Machine/ Indus Creed, it’s only their fourth album ever – after ‘Rock n’ Roll Renegade’ in 1988, ‘The Second Coming’ in 1990, and the eponymous Indus Creed set in 1995. Over the years, they’ve had a fantastic array of musicians. Besides the current line-up, they’ve had guitarist Jayesh Gandhi, bassist Mark Selwyn, and drummers Mark Menezes, Bobby Duggal and Adrian Fernandes, besides a few others who were part of the band in the very early stages, or who did a few guest appearances later.

What’s common throughout, of course, is the incredible talent that has been part of the band. Each musician has had a unique role to play, and has helped in making the outfit ‘evolve’.

There have been quite a few Indus Creed memories. Some of the early Rock Machine gigs, the I-Rock shows at Rang Bhavan, and yes, the appearance with guitar god Slash at the MTV re-launch party in Bangalore in 1996, playing the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. The reunion show at Hard Rock and their outing at the Jack Daniels-Rolling Stone rock awards are among the recent ones.

But my favourite Indus Creed line-up? Well, 1980s Rock Machine was one thing, 1990s Indus Creed yet another, and present-day Indus Creed something else. It’s almost like trying to analyse which of Deep Purple’s various ‘Marks’ was the best. As long as they continue to produce fantastic music, it doesn’t really matter.

And  my favourite Machine/ Creed album? Again it doesn’t matter, though with ‘Evolve’, they have evolved even further.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

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