Irtiqa - EP (2003)

"Shut up when I am talking to you," was a line most famously used in their debut single. EP clearly had the swagger down before they ever had the songs. "Humain Aazma" and "Kahan Hai Tu" their earliest songs, for all their energy and the then novel style (at least in Urdu) were sloganeering 101. In live performances they were also erratic. The fact that they were a "Pepsi Battle of the Bands" (BOB) band was also a strike against them. One got the feeling that the band was all hype and after fellow BOB band Aaroh's disappointing album, one did not expect much from EP.

But with their debut album EP have taken a quantum leap forward and certainly belied all expectations. "Irtiqa", as the album is aptly called, is possibly the best debut album ever released in Pakistan (beating out Noori's "Suno Ke Main Hun Jawan" and Junoon's eponymous first album.) Furthermore in its ambition, vision and execution "Irtiqa" is probably one of the best albums released hereabouts (alongside "Aitebar" (Vital Signs), "Suno Ke Main Hun Jawan" (Noori), "Parvaaz" (Junoon) and "Strings 2" (Strings).) And to top it all off EP have had the canny sense to drop the "Shut up" line from the album version of "Humain Aazma".

At a first listen, the most noteworthy thing about the album is precisely that it is an album. It is a focused and thematically cohesive piece of work with songs that gel and work together. Most often in Pakistan, albums tend to be nothing more than a collection of unrelated songs that are addled in meaning and intent beyond that of providing entertainment. "Irtiqa" attempts and manages to be art. Titling the album "Irtiqa" therefore may well have been appropriate as it reflects a change of paradigm evolution in the art of album making.

Thematically the album is a more mature look at the shape of things and feelings in real life. Darker themes are not just perfunctorily touched upon; they are delved into through words and music: the existential angst of "Kahan Hoon Main", the righteous disgust at materialism in "Fitrat", the confusion of the crossroads of "Rahguzar", the fatalistic undercurrent introduced in "Hamesha", the futility of the up and at 'em spirit in face of passing time in "Waqt" and finally the emotional meltdown of "Irtiqa III" all represent powerful counters to the pointless and head-in-ground optimism of most other popular artists today. In its darkness and sobriety "Irtiqa" is groundbreaking. The intelligence demonstrated throughout in composition and what the album says is key.

Coming to the songs themselves, almost every single one has something remarkable about it. Half of the album is superlative ("Fitrat", "Waqt", "Hamesha", "Rahguzar"), while the other tracks remain still of an exceptionally high quality and are only lesser than what they could have been due to excess of familiarity with them ("Kahan Hai Tu", "Hamein Aazma") or because they only work in parts ("Aghosh", "Barzakh"). And as a finale to it all there is "Irtiqa III" by far the best and most unique song I have heard recently in Urdu.

"Irtiqa I" provides an atmospheric intro to the album with ambient sounds and effects. It immediately serves notice to the listener that this is an album with a difference. The powerful two-punch of "Hamain Aazma" and "Kahan Hai Tu" follows. The songs lack power only because they have by now been played-to-death. Some novelty is sought to be added by newly sequenced drum patterns but one feels live drums would have certainly helped these songs.

"Hamesha" is the first of the great tracks: it is memorably catchy -- the most commercial song on the album -- and though it might be formulaic in places, it also has many merits. The intro of processed drums and piano arpeggios is delightful. The lyrics present a straight love song or a celebration a la Oasis' "Live Forever" (compare "Main rahoon ga hamesha" with "You and I are gonna live forever") but with a dark undercurrent.

"Waqt" follows "Hamesha" and once again has brilliant music. It is atmospheric and showcases the three vocalists in the band. Ahmad Ali Butt's opening English rap is jarring and almost torpedoes the song. But it is Zulfi thereafter who comes into his own as an accomplished vocalist and saves the song. Fawad, the lead vocalist, then comes in for the chorus and does a creditable job. Thereafter late into the song it all truly comes alive. Around halfway into the song, "Waqt" comes up with the most unexpected changeup, a delightful interlude of celtic flutes, and then once again it is back to the hard dynamic.

"Aghosh" soon follows and is a curious song. It has me confused. For one, like all good art, it has been variously interpreted: is it an anti-war song? Or a patriotic song with a difference? Most people seem to favour one of the two. I think it is an I-love-my-mummy song. The video seems to support this and this is the only explanation one can think of when one wonders why the song was released as a single to launch the album. The song in fact is one of the weaker ones on the album (along with "Barzakh"), if not the weakest. The sentiment behind it however is creditable.

"Irtiqa II" is a whole lot of white noise interlude that works as quite a wakeup call after the relatively gentle "Aghosh". "Rahguzar" for most people is the highlight on the album. I disagree, though musically once more the song is brilliant, starkly orchestrated with explosions of energy and demonstrates a man at crossroads. The wah solo in the album is tasteful and a highlight in its restraint (almost Dave Gilmour-like) and refusal to resort to the shred-guitar cliches.

"Fitrat" keeps up the quality and is a juggernaut of a song. Songs decrying materialism ("Mr. Fraudiye", "Paisa", etc.) have already been done in the past, but this one goes beyond those and does it with tons of passion. It opens with excellently doubled vocals that give an eerie effect to the song, before the song explodes into its chorus. Ahmad Ali Butt demonstrates his excellent singing pipes here. Lyrically, the observations may still be trite, but the intensity make them convincing.

"Barzakh" reminds one a bit of the band Tool and after two killer tracks, it comes across as a bit of a let-down. It aims for an epic feel but does not quite manage it. But it is the perfect set-up song for what comes next.

"Irtiqa III" is quite simply one of the best Urdu tracks ever. One could have written a whole piece about this song alone. Instead I will limit myself to a paragraph. The song is more of a spoken word song, a dramatic piece. For the first few minutes it threatens to be melodramatic to its own detriment, but comes alive with some fabulous symphonic work later on and a powerfully intense ending. The last three minutes of this song provide the best last three minutes of any Pakistani album ever. It reminds one of the drama of Guns N Roses' "Coma" ("Use Your Illusion I") crossed with the angst of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" ("Jang-o-Aman" is memorably rhymed with "Ustaad-e-Mohtaram" which is at once humorous and harrowing a la "Another Brick in the Wall.") The song is lyrically effective, a masterwork by Danish Jahan, Zulfi's brother. The music is truly symphonic and the production is a master-class in studio manipulation. As for the vocal delivery, Fawad puts his dramatic experience to good use.

One thing actually that "Irtiqa III" highlights and the rest of the album brings home is the appropriateness of the music and how it is used to convey feelings. "Waqt" conveys a passing of time, "Fitrat" outrage and finally "Irtiqa III" is the best at this with the whole gamut of feelings it unleashes.

Lyrically, the intensity to the words in the album is the key. It is the darkness that this album is shot through with that is important. "Suno Ke Main Aik Jhoot Hoon" as the last statement to the album is a far cry from the debut feel-good celebration of "Suno Ke Main Hun Jawan". In this there is distinctly a broadening of the emotional spectrum of lyrics on this album. The vocabulary too used on the album is great.

The treatment of various themes is more thorough here than elsewhere. Most people lyrically lambast "Paisa" (Haroon, Awaz). "Fitrat" takes it a little beyond and finds a link between human nature and materialism. In that the lyrics are certainly a bit more evolved and involved than other albums.

Moreover it is clear that this is a work of true dedication. The album is a complete artistic statement. "Irtiqa" reflects the mood of the album in its packaging too. The cover with depiction of a foetus is grim and representative of the album concept. There is no posey band on the cover, and the provision of lyrics is convenient.

As regards the personnel on the album, curiously only half of the live band makes it on record and the performances of the persons on record are varied. We have Zulfi on guitars/bass/vocals and whatnot and Ahmad, Fawad (also on keys and drum programming) and Salman on vocals. Zulfi is the star here, and the album is mostly his baby.

Fawad is the real revelation on this album. He demonstrates remarkable improvement and proves all critics wrong. His vocals are quite uniformly spot-on and his ability to emote is an asset (notwithstanding the overacting in "Irtiqa III"). What has truly been impressive has been his hand in composition of most of the best songs on the album. The highest plaudits go to Fawad for his drum programming which is stunning. While a couple of tracks could have been better with live drums (EP does after all have two drummers), his work on "Irtiqa III" and most others is stupendous. By all accounts, live drums were to be recorded at Mekaal's studio and the band in final reckoning deemed the sound they were getting to be not good enough and went with programmed drums (self produced) instead. In the climaxes the drums work out while the snares and toms, the thuddadud double bass combos and the rolls are brilliant.

While Fawad prospers, Ahmad Ali Butt is not all that convincing on record. On stage he rules all but here his rapping does not have the staccato intonation needed. That being said his singing is quite powerful on "Fitrat" and he should certainly do more of it.

Overall, EP crafts some impressive soundscapes on this album. The production is quite good. "Irtiqa" really is a studio creation and the band have used all tools at hand - sound effects, studio techniques, etc. - to come up with an accomplished production.

Stylistically there are strong hints of Linkin Park, Tool and surprisingly quite a bit of Pink Floyd and Queensryche in this album. But to their credit EP has absorbed the influences and by and large come up with something uniquely their own.

All of this is not to say that "Irtiqa" is a perfect album. There are a few minor criticisms: For one, the interludes really should have been made skippable tracks. As things stand if one wants to listen to "Hamain Aazma" one has to hear over a minute of random interlude noises before the song even starts. Two, the guitars for all their excellent tone could have done with better production. The wall of sound required on up numbers is missing sometimes. "Kahan Hai Tu" and more particularly "Hamain Aazma" could have done with the huge treatment, whereas on record one only gets to hear a couple of guitars.

Three, if one is more thorough in looking at it, the concept of the album does not really work. For one, the order in which the tracks are put out is bit confused. The kid is born with "Irtiqa I" and already he is singing "Hamain Aazma"? And then is immediately assailed with the doubts of "Kahan Hai Tu"? Admittedly, some of the best concept albums have had this problem. "Sargeant Pepper's" by the Beatles was a concept album "only because we [the Beatles] said so," according to John Lennon. "Irtiqa" might have thematic coherence but some of the songs are out of place or order if the album is indeed seeking to be a conceptual narration. Lastly, the title of the album is not accurate in the sense that "Irtiqa" stands for evolution. The album actually describes devolution, or the disintegration of a man-child.

In conclusion, with "Irtiqa", the bar has clearly been raised for other artists. I would venture so far as to say this is the best Pakistani album bar none. Compare "Irtiqa" to any other album to see how. You will be left with a staggering thought: this is their debut album and the band is still in its '20s. The future is alive with possibilities and for now one gives in to the art of "Irtiqa".

Mohammad A. Qayyum
The News International, Pakistan