"Ishq", the latest album by Pakistan's sole "supergroup" Junoon, is a schizophrenic compilation. And that is the good news.
Junoon is one group that built its musical reputation and credibility on their willingness to explore uncharted territories and to experiment outside the straight jacketing confines of Western rock. Evidence of this was available on each of their early albums. From the uncertain "Junoon", to the angst-ridden "Talaash", to the fiery "Inquilaab", to the confident "Azadi", each release showcased the evolution of a group, struggling to find its own voice.
Paradoxically, however, the moment they did find their niche - on the musically coherent "Azadi" - Junoon fell into a rut. After it, gone was the most engaging feature of their music: the ability to surprise their audience. This had held true even after their rocketing to mainstream success, courtesy the anthemic 1996 World Cup anthem, "Jazba Junoon". On "Parvaaz", Junoon committed the most cardinal sin any creative artist or group can commit: they became boring.
Junoon's downslide on "Parvaaz" was philosophical as well as musical. On the philosophic side, they chose themes that were "safe" - formulas that had succeeded earlier on "Azadi" - and also became trapped in the hype of their own creation. Much as they may deny it now, they were significantly to blame for their incarnation as pseudo-sufis. Soon the sufic mantle they chose to wear overpowered their music and any excitement was squeezed out by the leaden weight of reform messaging. It's difficult to enjoy yourself when you have the worries of the world riding on your shoulders.
Musically too, "Parvaaz" was a disappointment. Junoon had already shown the confidence they had achieved in their special brand of East-West fusion on "Azadi". With "Parvaaz", they continued to do more of the same. Worse still, barring one or two, all the tracks on the album sounded similar, despondent melancholic dirges with the band taking itself too seriously. That vocalist Ali Azmat seemed to have lost his voice didn't help matters.
It is in this context that Ishq's schizophrenia is the glimmer of hope. There are still many remnants of "Parvaaz" on display here. But there are also a few tracks that are musically and philosophically pointing in a completely different direction for the group. This is a direction in which Junoon is willing to let its guard down, to rid itself of its recently found earnestness, to be vulnerable in experimentation again. It is also a direction in which one can see a return to some of the group's earlier fire. For their sake and ours, one hopes it is this element which dominates the band's next work.
The song which typifies this new direction is "Dharti Ke Khuda", by far the best track on the album. Giving the lie to all expectations of it being another execrable "Ilteja" or "Ehtesaab", this is an angry bit of rant against demagogues - Religious? Military? Political? - who control the destinies of common people. This is an expression of genuine anger and frustration with much implied about our social and political climate.
It has a direct passion missing almost entirely on "Parvaaz": with lyrics calling for deserved punishment for these false gods, this is no serene sufic message of understanding and compassion. Brilliantly aided by Ali Azmat's strong vocals and John Louis Pinto's drumming - the lack of a tabla here is in itself a departure from much of Junoon's recent work - "Dharti Ke Khuda" is an excellent song.
The musical departure from the tabla-guitar fusion is also on display on two other songs, "Shamein" and "Jaaney Tu". Of these, the latter is another catchy example of the promising new direction. Good vocal hooks and imaginative lyrics (by perennial pop favourite Sabir Zafar) lift the track, but it is also the perceptive percussive talents of Pinto which provide the solid foundation on which its edginess rests. Junoon has found an able asset to complement Ashiq Ali's tabla.
Of the other songs, "Chaen", "Sheena", "Chal Kuriye" and, to some extent, "Ishq", also display flashes of Junoon rediscovering the fun of playing. Chaen's funky guitar riffs and intricate solos remind the listener of the rhythmic hooks of "Mahi". On "Sheena" - whose exact allusion is a bit elusive - the interplay between the guitar and the tabla is refreshingly unforced, providing the perfect structure to offset for Salman Ahmed's soaring solos. The campiness of the lyrics - "Tujhe hoga jeena Sheena" - also add to the charm of the song because it again demonstrates a band willing to take itself less seriously.
"Chal Kuriye" is a straightforward rocker addressed to a rebellious girl, with immense potential to become a concert hall favourite. Ashiq Ali's tablas and Brian O'Connell's bass provide the foundation to get the feet tapping in the aisles. "Ishq", the title track, is nothing of the sort but is bolstered by some strong vocals ("Pani mein ik aag laga de ishq tera" is sung particularly well) which gives the song some immediacy.
Ali's rediscovering of his voice is, in fact, an important element of this album. He has obviously worked on his vocals and it shows on almost all the tracks. He is willing to let his voice soar as well as attempts notes he has never tried before, to good effect. Where he falters, however, the song sinks, as in "Kaise Gaon Mein" and "Sheeshe Ka Ghar".
While the former had some potential that was squandered by poor vocals, the latter never takes off the ground, thanks to out of tune backing vocals in addition to overwrought lyrics, a return to clumsy message songs found on almost all pop albums of yore. Ali's excellent falsetto hook on "Shamein", meanwhile, almost saves the song from banalization brought on by a chorus that sounds suspiciously similar to something by one of the ubiquitous Western pop boy bands.
The three other tracks on the album are "Saqi Nama", "Jugalbandi" (a live instrumental performance recorded at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark) and "Ocean of Love", an English song which is not listed, and for good reason. Leaving aside "Ocean of Love", which truly Stinks - with a capital "S" - the other two tracks seem like remnants of an old Junoon.
In all honesty, although Allama Iqbal's "Saqi Nama" is sure to be promoted by the band and its marketers, there is nothing new musically in it. It's message may yet strike a chord with some youth - "Jawanon ko peeron ka ustad kar" - but it sounds like Junoon's way of replacing the patriotic national song with a more oblique version of the same.
One can only hope that Junoon's schizophrenia is a harbinger of the new pushing out a stale identity.
Ishq's schizophrenia is the glimmer of hope.Hasan Zaidi