The year in indie releases.
Let’s just get it out of the way up front: 2016 had a lot of excellent independent releases from India, and rating them on an arbitrary system doesn’t make a lot of sense. Instead, here’s a list of nine notable releases from the year that are worth checking out (which isn’t to say these are the only nine good releases from 2016).
Nucleya – Raja Baja
Nucleya is a phenomenon; a superstar; a goddamn national sensation is what he is. Like the best kind of pop, his music too has such as immediate visceral impact that it renders all intellectual critique of it secondary and, in turn, inconsequential or unnecessary. You could have a problem with how he sells his music, or the histrionics at his live gigs, or his style of writing, or even Udyan Sagar’s face itself.
But then, each time one of his folk-electronica/dance tracks kicks in, the instant impulse is to move violently, to shake your body and jump. The openness of Raja Baja, like all his past works, is just another reason why thousands of people show up and behave like uncoordinated pinheads at every single gig of his. It’s like one of those cult highway dhabas you have to eat at regardless of how hungry you are while passing through. You know what you’re in for: It’s going to be oily and heavy and messy and it could cause serious damage the morning after, but it’s also going to be unquestionably amazing. In a way, it’s safe.
SISTER – Ltalam EP
OK, I won’t lie; SISTER’s music scares the living shit out of me. It’s not even technically music — the correct classification of it would be ‘noise’. The physicality of Ltalam, a four-song EP he put out this year which is the opposite of jolly and cheerful, works as both a lure and a warning. Ltalam is basically just lots of hisses and crackles that fluctuate in frequency and tonality, with some sinister, ominous spoken samples adding an air of doom to the music. It’s the wreckage of conventional sounds; it’s what you get when you shred pretty songs or dump them in an incinerator; it’s what comes out the other side or flush them down a clogged toilet or vomit them out. Personally, SISTER has been a great discovery for me, and, regardless of one’s views, the album is worth spending some time, even if only for the novelty. (And a hazy, sputtering recording of ‘Strawberry Fields’ by the Beatles to close out the release just seems like a cruel, and hilarious, joke.)
Sundog Project – Tora
Tora, the new album by Delhi’s SundogProject, is a gruelling listen in the way it’s been structured. Presented in a seesaw fashion, the songs fluctuate from tough, challenging motifs that have been concealed under tons of layers that are forever fluttering about, to playful departures into idyllic landscapes. It forces its listeners to introspect, to absorb demanding musical diversions, in order to seek the reward that lies at the end. A lot of pop music is about immediate gratification; minimal effort for maximum remuneration. Tora skips that dictum, playing, instead, the long game, and in turn becoming an album that listeners might not immediately understand or connect with, but can revisit time and again for a more enriching experience.
Disco Puppet – Spring
I have a couple of questions: Is Shoumik Biswas, aka Disco Puppet, one of the most daring musicians around? Is he wired differently? Does he see colours that don’t exist? Does food smell like letters to him? His second EP, Spring, certainly suggests as much, introducing us to his vision with a splotchy, MS PACMAN-like arpeggiato on opener, Untitled. Not one of the six songs on the EP is accessible in the conventional sense, or even like the others on it, but it’s a remarkable glimpse of his meticulous, almost cold-blooded explorations into the world of songwriting. The experimentation isn’t exactly in-your-face; he’s not trying to win over the listener with gimmickry. The arrangements, the rousing melodies, are all buried within the music, requiring a concerted effort to dig them out, in what is arguably one of the standout releases of the year.
Begum – We Are Excited
Let’s pretend the album isn’t called We Are Excited and that it has a much cooler name than that. Begum’s second full-length, an almost solipsistic exercise, settles in a space that exists only inside the band members’ heads, but it’s a good place to be, all warm and fuzzy. The lo-fi dynamics of the record lend an airy sense of dopiness to the music, and you get the feeling that the songs are literally escaping from the pores of the musicians involuntarily. It’s effortless, lazy, wistful rock ‘n’ roll, recalling pleasant memories long left behind in our collective histories. Like sitting on the grass under the winter sun, or driving around on empty roads early in the morning, or, like, just eating a salad for lunch and heading out for a long walk. It’s breezy, basically, familiar in the kindest way possible.
Donn Bhat – Connected
There’s considerable production/recording thingamajiggery on Connected to appease the part of our population that gets off on technical sophistication. But Donn Bhat’s true strength lies in writing simple, powerful songs that retain an emotional core — regardless of how you categorise them (does he write rock songs within an electronica framework? Or electronica with a rock ‘n’ roll spine? Or neither?) — even if it’s at the cost of, sometimes, taking risks and experimenting a bit more. Connected, especially on its title track, and on a handful of others as well, gives its listeners hooks and melodies aplenty and boasts a high recall value. Lyrically, the album is an ode to the perils and rewards of big city life, with catchy, easy-to-relate poetry lending a mature sense of narrative to it.
Ska Vengers – XX
With XX, the Ska Vengers continue in their mission to engage with the political climate of our times, retaining their trademark spirit of protest and rebellion. Here, they direct their attention at surveillance, corruption, casteism, the rights of women in society, as well as the crackdown on dissent and individual opinion in India, and much more besides. Theirs is a welcome presence in a scene that has famously remained averse to voicing any form of objection or debate around current socio-political issues (not that there’s anything wrong with either, if you ask me), standing out among hordes of bands and lyricists that prefer to gaze inward through their music. In terms of songwriting, too, there’s a departure from their ska-heavy leanings of before, as the sound seems to have expanded and enlarged, and the music isn’t as self-contained anymore.
The Circus – With Love
What’s the deal with bands and awful album names? Anyway, moving on from there, Delhi’s psych/experimental/alternative rockers the Circus, a fairly prolific band, put out their third full-length album this year. It follows on from their previous works, jumping in intensity from restrained to feverish often as has become their trademark. The songs have spectacular riffing and melodies and harmonies that tend to stick. What’s different here is that they seem to be more polished, more refined, in their delivery, at times at the expense of some of the raw edges of past releases. For a reference point, think of a mix of modern proggy bands such as Karnivool along with considerable influences from Incubus and a sprinkling of pretty, guitar-driven post-rock passages.
Barty’s Path – Where Is Everybody?
Where Is Everybody?by Barty’s Path, the solo project of Mumbai musician Arjun Iyer, is hard to peg down. It’s such a whimsical, idiosyncratic record that’s pulled apart in so many different directions stylistically (which seems deliberate) — like something Mike Patton would do if he were ever drafted into Pink Floyd. String and horn arrangements sit at the centre of this very interesting sound Iyer has crafted, with his voice, restrained for the most part, floating behind, alongside distant percussions. (If anything, the singing gets a little too sincere at times, but that’s a personal thing.) It’s an elaborate concept album, so the songs jump around in terms of form quite often, and it feels a lot like a soundtrack. What really holds it all together, though, is the pop sensibility and the charming melodies through the 11 songs.
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By Akhil Sood