Dewaar - Junoon (2003)

People with walls, shouldn't throw bricks

"Dewaar." Certainly, it is not Junoon's finest album (that would either be "Inquilaab" or "Parvaaz"). Nor, is it the band's worst (that honour must go to "Ishq"). But then it eventually fails to even match the patchy, blow-hot-blow-cold ways of "Azadi," or even come close to capturing the raw and untamed energy of "Junoon" and "Talaash." Then where does Junoon's eagerly awaited new release belong in the sweepstakes of the premier Pakistani rock band's long list of albums?

Let's start by asking where it stands among the hundreds of albums that have been churned out in the last few years by many new and greying local pop acts?

Considering the fact most of these acts seem more interested in 'making music' to please their respective sponsors or the pop shows and channels across the cable network, in such a cynical, dime-a-dozen scenario, "Dewaar" lies (and sounds) awkwardly sandwiched! Sandwiched between the understated brilliance of Fuzon; the giveaway and sell-out commercial heights of Abrar and Jawad; the chocolate-heroics of Shahzad Roy; fractured moral pop babblings of Najam and Junaid Jamshed; the hyped-up pomp of Noori and the usual cosmetic and manufactured bubblegum pop of the likes of Haroon, Faakhir and a million one-video-wonders you get to see on Indus Music.

And to tell you the truth, I doubt if "Dewaar" will be able sell enough to regenerate Junoon's spiralling career as the land's biggest selling rock-fusion act. In fact, after scaling unprecedented commercial (and creative) heights between 1996's "Inquilaab" and 1997's "Azadi," it has been a case of trading the downward spiral for the band. Especially ever since the unimpressive "Ishq." By the way, "Ishq" was also the album that proved exactly how and why Junoon's once charismatic image of being 'sufi-rockers' had reached a dead end.

Now, after only a few years since they last released an album, Junoon sounds beaten and out-sprinted by a host of new acts, in spite of the fact that most of these are, at best, mediocre Vital Signs/Sajjad Ali/Abrar/Junoon replicas (minus the talent but plus more air time and sponsorship deals!)

But in spite of the fact that acts like Vital Signs, Junoon (and later Abrar), were the leaders in the game of corporate wham-bam, their music, especially when compared to the stuff that is being dished out these days, was rather good.

But this cannot be said about Junoon anymore. Age and the paradoxical dependence on that cola buck started to dampen and neutralize the band's angry-young-band/crusading spirit and energy right after "Inquilaab," washing it all down as pretentious 'spiritual' pomp and ultimately, having been left with nothing more than intra-band tussles and post-Sufi-rock identity crisis.

Junoon contemporaries, Vital Signs, had started to face similar, in-band, domestic and 'spiritual' situations once they achieved the distinction of being the land's leading pop outfit in the early '90s. They were subsequently consumed whole by their own cola dilemmas and catch-22 scenarios, so much so, they have failed to record another album ever since 1995's "Hum Tum," in spite of the fact that on a number of occasions they have tried to re-group for a comeback release.

The truth is, the quantity-over-quality nature of today's pop scene in the country (actually all over the world!!), makes it important for acts like Vital Signs, Junoon, Sajjad Ali and Aamir Zaki to hang on to their thirty-something selves to keep reflecting qualitative examples for the rare number of recent talents (such as Fuzon), just like it is important for bands like Radiohead, Pearl Jam and even a greying Pink Floyd to do the same for current powerhouse potentials like the White Stripes and to negate the empty million-selling Pearl Jam imitators and emptier hip hop and boy band pot-shots.

But unfortunately, with "Dewaar," Junoon won't be able to achieve the above-mentioned necessity. And what is even more frightening is the fact that long before the album ends one already starts getting a rude feeling that this may as well be Junoon's last-ditch effort. An effort which just doesn't work, especially compared to the band's highly energetic and powerful (albeit topsy-turvy and "controversial"), back catalogue.

Did 2000's disastrous "Ishq" contain the very symptoms of the illness most mega groups ultimately fall prey to? Bad vibes between band members plus an important form of 'naive' idealism and enthusiasm being replaced with desperate and self-centred material means and ends justified with wishy-washy philosophies of 'pragmatic living' and 'moral rights' to unabashedly juxtapose corporate-brand-mongering with 'art', loop-holed religiosity and 'spirituality' and a clichéd exhibition of 'patriotism.'

Free Fall (or the 'revolution' that burped-out)

Most of the land's finest acts, from Vital Signs/Junaid Jamshed, to Najam have made a free-fall nosedive into this vicious quagmire (and so have their many young, middle-class fans). What's more, these acts' younger contemporaries are displaying (without an iota of thought or feeling), the same contradictory tendencies regarding 'moderate modernism'.

I remember the time when Vital Signs and Junoon burst onto the scene and announced a revolution of sorts in the confines of the changing, young Pakistani middle-classes. The 'revolution' has eventually spiralled down into creative and social nothingness and pretension.

So think again if you're a young man or woman feeling delighted with the contagious outbreak (more than a joyful explosion), of pop acts and TV shows. It's all boiling down to teenybopper fantasies being fed with hyped corporate labelling and chants of patriotism, or, on the other end, with an 'underground scene' with empty-headed acts aping the sounds of empty-headed acts like Nickleback, Creed, Stained, Linkin Park and a thousand more Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chilli Peppers wannabes.

The writing is on the wall

Soon after the Vital Signs collapsed under its own weight of reaching that conflicting balancing act between sounding arty and being yuppie, and Pepsi consequently adopted the melodic Strings to continue the cola's crusade to COLAnize young bourgeoisie Pakistan (things are far unabashed in this respect in India, though); and after Ali Haider went back from his bold Jadu-era experimentation towards his safe poster-boy image; after Sajjad Ali had given it all and he just had his past glories to exhibit; after Abrar and Jawad opted to take the worn-out bhangra-pop road; after Hadiqa started taking more interest in her wardrobe than in her music ... soon after all this and much more, Junoon seemed to be the only hope in retaining the power, the idealism and the spirit of the small but imposing early-'90s pop scene.

They did okay even until their 2001 live album. But two years later, the band sounds exhausted and creatively bankrupt. Trying hard to cash-in on their past glories, their name and, of course, their game with good ol' Coke. The cola's logo is one of the first things you notice on what is a terrible album cover. It's like a close-up front shot of the band members, as if all of them look resigned to the fate of being stuck inside a whooshing cola whirlpool.

But ironically the album opens with two impressive ditties. The layered and understated FM-rock of "Tara Jala." Written and composed by vocalist Ali Azmat, it is one of those songs, which after it grows on you, stays there for more than a while.

"Pappu Yaar" immediately follows it and what I would like to call (perhaps) Junoon's last hurrah in realms of jumpy, tongue-in-cheek songs? The music almost perfectly compliments the joyfully sardonic lyrics of the song, and it is made even more enjoyable with guitarist Salman Ahmed's trademark Page-meets-Edge riffing and his subtle echo-laid nuances, which bounce off the tight bass runs by Brian O'Connell and what is, maybe a drum machine? This song sure sounds like a hit. And credit should be given to ex-Vital Signs man Shahzad Hassan who has turned out to be one of the most exciting (but underrated) producers/engineers in the local scene. His emphasis on achieving a multi-dimensional sound via layering and some imaginative mixing does wonders on these two songs as it did on the thunderous "Garaj Baras" last year, and which again appears here as track seven on the otherwise creaking "Dewaar."

"Ghoom Tana" though not all that bad, as such, but starts to fall apart especially as a follow-up to the juicy "Pappu Yaar." Certainly no relative to the mighty Sufi-Rock chestnut, "Ghoom" on 1999's "Parvaaz," "Ghoom Tana" can serve well as an entertaining concert sing-along ditty.

The dreggy "Ghoom Tana" is followed by the title-track, "Dewaar." Starts out well with an edgy and melancholic guitar intro, only to fall all over the place once Ali and Salman start to take turns to plead individually about the walls of hate and mistrust (maybe between India and Pakistan?). The end result is that "Dewaar" never really manages to pick up, at times sounding rather tuneless.

By now you start feeling a bit restless. Maybe the next song will regenerate the promise initialised by the album's first two tracks? Absolutely not! I say absolutely because next in line is the spineless, frivolous jingle-jangle of "Maza Zindagi Ka." Obviously. After all it's a 'song' based on a Coke jingle and it plays like a Coke jingle. In fact, 'musically', it is quite similar to the Strings' over-ambitious (but under-achieving), World Cup 2003 song for Pepsi. When will this hail-our-sponsors patronization end?

It sure is a relief when this waste of tape and time is fortunately followed by "Garaj Baras." Though a 2001 Junoon song, it manages to stand the tallest on this album. The band's in great form. Ali, Brian, and especially Salman. In fact his playing is made all the more juicy and raunchy (and yet melodic) by Shahi's excellent production. But then that's about it as far as "Dewaar" is concerned.

The rest of the tracks (all five of them), are perhaps Junoon's worst ever! And what's even worse is the fact that Salman actually attempts to sing on most of them. He's definitely a great riff-master, the finest in the country. A highly improved lead player...but a vocalist he is not! What happened? Ali threatening to quit (so he can sing his awful English songs which still sound like bad mid -'80s hairspray-rock?). Salman suffering from delusions of grandeur?

To me, it's more a case of the band running out of steam and enthusiasm. It's a pity, really. This "Dewaar" crumbles so easily. So what's all the pleading for? Just have a Coke and smile. And if there is a next time for Junoon, give Brian the mike. And Malcolm. And Gumby. And Ashiq. And Sabir Zafar. And MD, Coke. And, hey, I can sing too, y' know?

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
The News International, Pakistan