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 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.
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.
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.