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The F16s: Kaleidoscope

28 Aug

Top Five Records is no stranger to the Chennai Music Scene; we’ve done our best to highlight the polished, challenging, unique indie sound that comes out of a city that normally has a less-than-stellar reputation for indie music. Bands like Little Babooshka’s Grind, Junkyard Groove, Adam & the Fish Eyed Poets and the Shakey Rays have challenged that notion time and again over the past year or two, and now it’s the F16s’ turn to challenge India’s perception of what the southern city’s young musicians can come up with.

The F16s
The F16s’ debut album, Kaleidoscope, is a mix-and-match of styles, genres, sounds, stories and inspirations (although somewhat skewed towards a mix of Arctic Monkeys and the Strokes) that comes together in a burst of colour and shapes, and ideally beer. It’s almost overwhelming. Heady, carnival-inspired post-break-up indie? Check. Guitar-fuzzed, anthemic garage rock? Check.  Smokey-back-room-inspired depressing alt rock? Check. Kaleidoscope works as the perfect showcase for one of the few Indian bands who can rightly claim the tag “genre defying.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the EP is accompanied by absolutely gorgeous album and single art.

It also doesn’t hurt that the EP is accompanied by absolutely gorgeous album and single art.

So, on to the album, then. “Prelude” first tiptoes and then charges onto the scene armed with a driving guitar riff, pressing drum beat and tinged with acid techno. A little over a minute later, however, “Light Bulbs” strolls in: a swinging, off-centre electric piano groove, with drawling guitars and drawling vocals. Full of a painful, morose sort of ennui, it’s almost impossible not to imagine a depressed 20-something in a Delhi restrobar with her friends, trying to stay afloat in the gloomy bar-hopping culture of young corporate India. Appropriately enough, the song ends with a vocal harmonization that rivals that heard in Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”. It does have way more cowbell though, so I suppose in some respects it’s even better.

The depression doesn’t abate as the EP slides into “Avalanche”. We love the original acoustic version, but it’s great to hear it fully realized in electric: subtle organ shifts and a catchy syncopated guitar rhythm (anyone else hearing A Certain Romance?) strengthen a song that’s about trying to run away from your troubles.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech allows for a bizarre but  fun segue into “The King’s Dream”, a song that starts off sounding like Jet and ends up sounding like The Fratellis. Fuzzy guitars and a very danceable beat make for  the kind of music that’s perfect for non-IDM-saturated hipster parties; their groove just won’t let you stay still. Don’t worry, though: the Reverend’s spirit lives on in the song through its lyrics full of rebellion (although admittedly from an upper-middle-class youth perspective). 

“Who Robbed the Rogue” moves The F16s’ sound into new territory yet again, flying through the Strokes’galaxy with a minor stopover in MGMT’s world. The song’s outro is a universe apart entirely, and builds up into a crescendo of what we can only describe as Wagnerian rock (think early-2000s Muse).

“My Shallow Lover” is a great follow-up song after “The Rogue”. Ostensibly a song of discovered adultery with none of the tears and all of the middle fingers, “My Shallow Lover” doesn’t beat about the bush:

“I don’t give a fuck about who you love and who you want and who you are, because I’m more important than you.”

High on cheek, sugar, and rotary organ keyboards, what sets this song apart from all the others in the EP is its super-awesome carnival descent at the end of the track: A heady mix of shoe-gaze and dream-pop that sounds exactly how I imagine dropping acid and riding a merry-go-round would feel.

Wrap your head around that for a second.

“Nuke” slows things down a bit, for a second, before turning up the fuzz slowly. First comes another Arctic Monkeys-esque drum groove (revisiting “Whatever People Say I AM” territory), before Josh opens his pipes again to belt: “Can you take control?” The song’s outro returns us back to Kaleidoscope’s initial techno-ish feel, albeit with a heavier, more industrial sound, before we’re left to our own devices surrounded by a fading hiss of static.

Kaleidoscope does have its rough parts: not all songs are for everyone, and it takes a rather unique listener to be able to appreciate each and every song. We’re talking about a release that jumps from genre to genre, from inspiration to inspiration, and from story to story almost every other minute.  Still, each jump brings you to newer territory and more awesome sounds, so the aural exercise is definitely worth it.

Go listen to the F16s on their SoundCloud account and buy their EP over at OK Listen. And check out the band’s Facebook Page for lyrics and absolutely gorgeous album/single art!

Also, a huge shout-out to Harshan Radhakrishnan for making keyboards sound cool!

– Karthik Manickam

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Skrat: Skrat in the Shed

25 Jul

If Chennai can claim any resemblance to an established alt rock scene in the city, a good chunk of that credit has to go to a band like Skrat. They have held out, survived the blizzards of lineup changes, a dearth of good audience and the hazards of taking a break in a very weak environment. They have taken their time to make music which screams in your ears that it’s Skrat, and nothing else: for example, take ‘Black Hammer Man’ or the ever-popular ‘Stay Wild’. Skrat is a band that has been courageous enough to take the time to find its own ‘sound’.

And that’s exactly what the band did, with Skrat in the Shed.

 

Skrat in the Shed is essentially a seventeen-minute, five song video showcase (see above) of Skrat playing five new songs, shot and recorded in front man T. T. Sriram’s ‘garage’, the jam room for many Chennai bands. Their first song “Tin Can Man” starts on a promising note with well-matched vocals and a foot tapping chorus. If that wasn’t enough to catch your attention, then the fast paced “Smoke a Cigar” grips it. The song is well-written and accompanied by catchy riffs, and the change of pace in the middle of the song is just brilliant.

It does look like all songs were performed in one go, with only a few tight seconds for demarcation. After “Smoke a Cigar”, we settle down to a nice and leisurely “Big Bad Bombs”. At just about four minutes long, this track has some soulful vocals and restrained drumming to go with it.

The next song “High” already seems like the next crowd favorite. Its low toned, deep and measured riffs sound like Tony Iommi cured of his lymphoma and back from his Sabbath-ical. On Skrat in the Shed, it is this song that reminds us most about just how much Skrat has striven to evolve and mature, tired of everyone telling them how to play their music. This slow paced song, presented with elegant vocals and good bass, is sure to have your heads rocking slowly in harmony with its title.

Bringing things to a fast paced end, leaving you craving for more is “Shake It Off”. Again, good guitar work does the trick here. Although old timers might question Sriram’s vocalizing of the lead tune, it’s still fun: and still Skrat in its own way. And what more, it worked with the audience which sang along when they performed at Alliance Francaise, Chennai recently.

All in all, Skrat in the Shed is a great album (and a neat video) by Skrat. They look all set to hit the mainstream and play regularly to bigger audiences. You have to be very determined and lucky if you get to make a successful comeback and reinvent yourself in the process. And Skrat looks like they’ve given their all.

– Prasannaa

Susmit Sen: Depths Of The Ocean

18 Jul

Susmit Sen has been India’s foremost acoustic guitarist for over two decades now. Founder-member of the great Indian band Indian Ocean, the band’s signature sound is built upon Sen’s unique guitar sound: Indian sensibilities, but a purity of scale that reigns supreme. Heavily influenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Nikhil Banerjee (sitar) as well as the great John MacLaughlin in equal measure, he has developed his own unique sound which, albeit not technically pure, is extremely clean. His compositions are in the classical mold, but not in method, where melodic lines are woven around the whirr of open strings.

Over the years, Indian Ocean’s sound has changed. The first album had only instrumentals, which was almost unheard of then in the Indian music industry. As the years have progressed, the band has incorporated vocals and lyrics, folks and roots playing a huge influence, with the numbers generally being more pacey and more mainstream in its attire. And somewhere along that line, the inherent classicism of its first album has been somewhat lost. And this is where Sen’s album comes in. Susmit Sen released his solo debut album Depths of the Ocean earlier this year – an album which has been in the making for the last ten years.

The album kicks off with the track “Rejuvenation” with his bandmate, the great late Asheem Chakravarthy on vocals and tabla. At a little under ten minutes, the track starts off with Susmit building up the mood with some neat jazzy riffs and then Asheem takes over with his tanas – Kumar Gandharva’s influence is crystal clear. As Asheem and Susmit feed off each other in a jugalbandi of sorts, it’s a distinctively early Indian Ocean. And it’s rather sad that this might be the last time one gets to hear Asheem’s soulful voice on record.

Next up is “City Lights” featuring Shubha Mudgal. Much darker in mood, it is unlike anything Rana’s ever done before. The first distinct feature is Shubha Mudgal’s whispered and restrained vocals, which are as majestic as her usually more vigorous style. Though it’s more than 11 minutes long, it’s all good: the sudden mood changes and fillers, accompanied by some beautiful flute and fluent keyboard playing, makes this track the majestic best of the fusion genre. The track ends with some dark but poignantly beautiful note phrasing, and is an absolute classic.

The title track “Depths of the Ocean”, incidentally one of Susmit & Asheem’s earliest compositions, features Parikrama’s Nitin Malik on lead vocals and other vocalists. It harks back to the era of Indian Ocean’s earliest days and its debut album. With some very agreeable vocals, the guitar parts have been woven in very intricately and you can hear traces of quite a few numbers from the debut album in the various jumps and turns the songs take.

“Tribute” is a solo Susmit Sen guitar track and it is easily the most moving piece of this album. It takes one back to the times where to experience music meant sitting alone in a dark room and letting the music seep into the soul, with inner peace as the foremost objective. The beautiful aalap creates a wonderful mood as it segues into the main composition with a beautiful jhala. Again it is a long composition, and again it never gets repetitive. Sen comes up with some beautiful fillers without ever changing scale.

Next is the folksy “Wild Epiphony” featuring the Assamese folk musician Papon on lead vocals. Though Papon is pretty good on the vocals with some powerful delivery and with Rana in full form, it doesn’t quite have the majesty of the earlier collaborations on the album. Following that is the track “Intimacy” featuring Sen’s cousin Sari Roy. It is another beautiful track with some very melodious riffs and fills, and Sari Roy harmonizes along quite beautifully with the strains of Sen’s strings. And it does create some mood – imagine sitting around a moon-lit terrace, a tad intoxicated and listening to a couple of friends singing and playing the guitar. Except, of course, your guitarist won’t be as good as Rana.

The album ends with “Six String Salute”, Sen’s take on our 100-year-old National Anthem. Stripping the anthem somewhat of its patriotic fervour, it brings out its oft-neglected spiritual and tranquil calmness and enhances its melodic classic-ness even more. Susmit Sen truly does this piece full justice.

Depths of the Ocean is an absolutely stunning album. Susmit Sen comes across as a musician at peace with himself and his guitar. It’s the fruit of his arduous twenty plus years with his band, the sounds and sensibilities definitely contributing to the beauty of it. This album makes an emphatic statement: Susmit Sen is still India’s best acoustic guitarist. There’s an ethereal and spiritual connection with his music, that can take its listeners places, and this album crowns Susmit Sen in all its glory: not only as a great guitarist but as a great musician.

Verdict: Indian Oceans fan you might or might not be, just shut yourself in your room and listen to this album. And drown in the Depths of this Ocean of sounds. And peace out!

– Sayid

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