Sounds of Freedom

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Indian alt-rockers are here to stay, writing their own albums

THERE IS—OR should be—this thing called the ‘morning album’. Something that makes you yearn for the speckled sunshine of early morning, with endless possibilities ahead of you, a good night’s rest behind. Something you’d put on as soon as you wake up, on an empty stomach, when you’re still stretching your arms for some circulation, rubbing out the sleep from your eyes. Lovesongs, by Bangalore/Dubai’s Aniruddh Menon, is one such collection of songs. It’s a delightful album—possibly one of the highlights of the year so far—evoking soft-filter panoramas of sunlit valleys. Of pastoral, transcendental landscapes that fade each time you blink. Of a broken kaleidoscope whose colours bleed into each other to form new colours, which in turn bleed into each other to form even newer colours. It’s wistful and contemplative, yet resorts to nostalgia only on the rarest of occasions.

Lovesongs, if we must reduce it to iTunes-friendly classifications, is electronic music. It’s a downtempo record driven by floaty synth melodies and an understated rhythmic attack. Menon indulges in heavy sampling, using sounds that have a personal relevance to him, and superimposing them within the context of these songs. Morning Rituals, for instance, features a sample of Sri Venkateswara Suprabhatam by MS Subbulakshmi, a piece of music Menon recalls his mother playing on a tape when he was living in Kochi. But within the song, that sample takes on a life of its own. A clutch of collaborators add movement to the music, as Menon has roped in friends and artists he respects and enjoys working with. Menon is a part of Machli, an experimental electro-acoustic band from Bangalore, and he gets bandmate Pardafash for a song, as well as Disco Puppet and a handful of other musicians.

A point that, while not exactly original, still needs to be made about this release is how much of an ‘album’ Lovesongs is. It’s sort of an abstract concept, but there’s a fine difference between a really good, really solid set of songs tossed together for release, and an ‘album’. Basically, you sense a running thread, this undercurrent of a theme tying all the songs together. It could be lyrically driven, which sounds easy enough, but often the music itself falls under this notional umbrella. It’s what works within the context of a given release—there’s internal logic to it, where a listener understands the reasons for a track’s presence on a record. It’s the difference between remembering great songs off an album and remembering just a great album.

Think of Velvet Underground and Nico, Velvet Underground’s debut release, produced and promoted by the incorrigible Andy Warhol. The songs—Venus In Furs, Heroin, Sunday Morning, to name only a few classics on it—don’t necessarily sound alike. But they all seem to belong together, part of one whole, and not as scattered bits hinged together for convenience. OK Computer by Radiohead, too, is one of those ‘albums’, wherein every single element, every sound on it, exists for a singular purpose. Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, the White Album or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club by the Beatles; you remove one thing—anything—and there’s a gaping hole in the centre, an absence that resonates. It’s a tic, really. Like a tube of toothpaste without its cap. Someone with one shoelace untied. A spot on the cheek left unshaved. There’s a longing for resolution, for completion.

An increasing number of independent musicians and bands in India, for what it’s worth, are now writing ‘albums’. In the past—the distant past, to be fair—there was always this sense that an indie album here was basically nothing more than a compilation of every single song a band had written. Like they had pumped in all their funds—pocket money, stolen change, credit line, call- centre earnings—into recording all the songs they’d had in their repertoire. And once the money ran out, presto, the album is complete!

Of course, it’s not like every single band that ever existed did this. Procrastination , by Mumbai’s Zero, while not a personal favourite, still fell into that speculative idea of an ‘album’, and it came out in 2005, a full 12 years ago. There are other releases that predate it as well. The point being that outliers have always existed, but there were lots of bands whose intentions—no doubt noble—were often solely around this ambition of releasing something. Recording was expensive and time-consuming, and opportunities to monetise your music were limited, if not entirely non- existent, so it was understandable.

More independent musicians are now writing ‘albums’. In the past, there was this sense that an indie album here was nothing more than a compilation of every song a band had written

That has now changed, and artists seem intent on presenting their own voices. It’s exciting. Look at Delhi’s alt- rockers Menwhopause. This is a band that’s been around for a hundred years, and has had a thousand line-up changes. But they’re still at it, still heading to SXSW 10 years after they went there the first time. They recently released Neon Delhi—14 songs that, once more, seem to follow a resounding internal theme. They make sense together; they work as an album. It’s all the more striking given the number of songs on it—admittedly inclusive of fillers, segues and transitions, intros, and outros — which is strongly at odds with how albums are generally consumed nowadays: the short ‘n’ sweet nature of modern consumption.

Rock ‘n’ roll, once this super-important movement for creative and social uprising, is…um, ahh, well… dead. It’s dead, no matter how much we may protest. It holds little-to-no significance today in terms of its aesthetic explorations— that honour goes to electronic music—or social change/outreac, which belongs to hip-hop. But that doesn’t mean there’s no space for it anymore. Bands are still around, doing their thing, putting themselves out there.

Menwhopause, too, fall in that same space. Neon Delhi places the guitar at its centre, with a deep, husky, reverberating vocal delivery directing the songs—often to very menacing peaks. Structurally, it’s easy to trace the origins of these songs to the daring alternative rock of the late 80s and early 90s, but the band does a fine job in adding their own imprint, their own identity, their own spin, to the music.

It may open with a song called Dawn, but Neon Delhi does in no way classify as a ‘morning album’. Instead, it belongs to an altogether different category: the ‘city album’. Menwhopause, with their music and their whole shtick outside of that, have always been an intrinsically Delhi band—some of the band members even ran a charming little café in Hauz Khas called Ziro till a few years ago—and they embrace the peculiarities of the capital with this release. So much music out there is so innately linked to the place it’s being made in, the immediate socio-politic and cultural stimulants serving as inspiration to the artists, and Neon Delhi seems to take its cues from the many eccentricities of Delhi. The songs keep shifting gears; there’s the occasional Hindi melody that crops up; the odd rap spat out from time to time; the guitar lines constantly shift from euphoric to eerie and ominous. The smattering of sampled sounds, presumably recorded in the city in question, only add to t he fragile balance between hope and desolation, with one eye on the peculiarities of the city, that Neon Delhi aims to reach.

Really, it’s not something you’d want to listen to in the morning. Another album you most definitely shouldn’t play in the morning is TDFDTU, by experimental artist Jamblu, from New Delhi. Why? Mainly because it could scare the daylights out of you. Jamblu is the solo project under which Kartik Pillai writes music. He’s also the guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist at Peter Cat Recording Co, and the frontman for Begum. Needless to say, the man is immoderately productive. Jamblu seems to function, seemingly, as sort of a test kitchen, a lab or a workshop where Pillai tries out his weird mad-scientist experiments, possibly so that he can remain civilised and sane while working with the bands he plays in.

His newest release, 35 minutes in length, borrows its title from a meditation technique. Musically, Pillai shuttles between snug, easy-going, downtempto electronic music to frantic moments of almost-chaos, veering toward extreme noise but always backing off just a step or two away from the complete turmoil of noise. The songs fluctuate between accessibility and alienation, and Jamblu is constantly readjusting moods and arrangements to drive home a mood of disarray and disorientation.

This poses a question: How much experimentation is too much experimentation? There’s no such thing, as it turns out. It’s comforting to know that there are enough musicians out there who are more than willing to stretch the limits of decency in their work. The need to specifically cater to an upwardly- mobile, pub-going audience may still be there, but there are now also enough outlets for the outliers—the weirdos and oddballs—to perform their music in front of fellow weirdos and oddballs. There are unconventional gigs happening these days, free from the burdens of the F&B industry—in art galleries, abandoned buildings, people’s homes—providing a safe space for connoisseurs of inaccessible, unapproachable experimental music or noise (particularly in Mumbai and Delhi) to gather with one another.

LET’S MOVE ON, though, to a different motif. So there’s this band in Mumbai called Blek. It’s a straight-up three-piece—guitars plus vocals, bass, drums—that released an EP a few years ago, a really fun album called Hexes + Drama. It was a clever mix of alternative rock, with lots of punk overtones and undertones, and just a sprinkling of pop to make the whole thing palatable. Alternative rock, basically. Then they just sort of dropped off the face of the earth. Now, four years later, there’s another Blek EP out, called Break the Beat.

This four-song release floats around within the sound it constructs. On some level, it has a punk heart. It feels incendiary, outspoken, blunt. But the music is relaxed, too lackadaisical, to truly match up to the frenzy of punk rock. It could be alt-rock, but it lacks the self-indulgence and showiness. Maybe pop, but the melodies aren’t nearly as manipulative, the vocals not nearly as catchy. It could be a number of things.

Blek manufacture a very endearing, careless laxity through the four songs. It’s not laziness exactly, but more an aesthetic of distant nonchalance, where the songs feel a few beats-per-minute slower than they actually are, where you suspect the vocalist has far more time than he really does. The production values on this release are crisp too—none of that low-fi-ness that a lot of bands playing music of this nature tend to embrace—and they serve to highlight the backbone of the music: the rhythm section driving all the songs forward.

Aniruddh Menon’s Lovesongs was released on Consolidate, a Bangalore-based label/artist collective pushing off-centre electronic music quite spiritedly. The latest release from the same cabal happens to be Only For External by Aerate Sound. The album, again propelled by mood- sounds—distant ambient soundscapes, hypnotic arpeggiated melody lines, hazy vocals, grand synths—has a cyclical energy to it. The arrangements circle around the various motifs established within the songs, as the chemically-treated, chopped-up vocals craft a welcome contrast between vast open landscapes and narrow, constricted spaces.

Of course, these are only a handful of releases to have seen the light of day recently. There’s tonnes more—we haven’t even entered the big bad world of hip- hop and metal, for starters—and just as many in the pipeline as well. Let’s spare a thought too for those tortured singer- songwriters constantly writing shrill acoustic melodies about how much their life sucks and how pretty things are.