Mantra - Faakhir (2005)

His website proudly proclaims him to be the "king of pop." Considering the travails of the other King of Pop in the Land of Opportunity and Salacious Lawsuits, this just might be a moniker Faakhir Mahmood would do well to not lay claim to. There may well have been some merit to the claim – the hit–laden debut "Aatish" was an excellent commercial pop album and the interim re–release "Sab Taun Sohniyeh" was equally effective - but ultimately "Mantra," the latest offering from Faakhir is a disappointing one and belies the claim. Call it the curse of self–aggrandizement or taking marketing too seriously: in concentrating on the former, an artist often loses sight of what matters, the music. "Mantra" is similarly affected and effect less. Cue: Michael Jackson's "History" (the second CD) and his subsequent failed albums.

Just like MJ's recent works, "Mantra" is a very canny and effective marketing exercise. It is excellently packaged with well proof-written liner notes (lyrics would not have gone amiss though) and employs a novel strategy for a Pakistani artist: it has been released as four versions of the same album. There is the Earth version, the Fire version, the Water version and the unfortunately titled Wind version. Each has a different cover shot (nice photography) and a different extra bonus track (the "Sab Taun Sohniye" Karoke version is useful). I actually bought all four to review. Now I want my money back. At least for three of them.

The problem with the album is that much of it is lacking inspiration. Lack of originality (most of the album reminds one of other songs or other artists) may not have been that much of a problem if the end product was fun. But that is not often the case here. Music like this may not have been done in Pakistan previously in this manner (it still has not as this Bollywood tinged album was principally recorded and I imagine put together in India) but most of these songs have been done to death and better done already in our neighbouring country and other desi genres. Even the very first notes one hears on the album make one think of the intro to Haroon's "Lagan" (the song "Mehbooba"). Actually - difficult for this fan of Faakhir's in the past to say, one now prefers the Haroon song.

The strongest songs off of "Mantra" it appears have possibly already been released off the album. "Tauba Hai" was effective (but not as good as Haroon's "Mehbooba" as noted earlier), if a tad inelegant, and the video with its various degrees of writhing served its purpose. "Mahi Ve" informed by Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" in the video was more a case of a video making a good song great. Asim Raza came back with a bang with the Chicago, Art Deco/Jazz Age video and kudos to him on that count.

In addition to the two songs already released as singles a couple of songs are quite good actually. Yet they always give the impression that they really could have been much better:

"Lag Lag" is a club song in this vein. It seems initially off-putting. It starts of with a Pushto voice (one wonders why; if it was meant as a joke then it is funny) only to turn into techno song with rock guitars coming in to break momentum and then Faakhir (who on most songs sings well) to sing in a manner totally unrelated to the mood of the piece (more aggressive singing was called for). Ayesha's backing vocals are quite effective though (standard Bollywood, one still doesn't know what she was singing though) and with chorus voices out of A.R. Rehman. Somehow it gels and the chorus is certainly catchy. After repeated listens it ends up being probably one of the stronger songs on the album.

"Kaash" has a winning chorus. The lyrics have some pathos (Jo aata hai/ Woh jaata hai is duniya sai) and the song is better because of it. Still one cues Sajjad Ali's "Paniyon Main" in the mind when one hears the lyrics. Compare "Bail jo aangan main thee/ Phool wo laati ho gee/ Chuntay to hon gay kaliyaan/ Hum nahin hain to phir bhee mehfilain sajti hon gee/ Sooni naa hoon gee galian/ Aisay main thori see aankhain bhar laana" from "Kaash" to "Paniyon main chal rahi hain/ Kashtiyan bhi jal raheen hain/ Hum kinarai par nahin hain" "Kaash" is only a lesser song than the Sajjad Ali classic in that it makes one wonders why in a song that deals with mortality is Faakhir and the music so happy? "Jiya Na Jaye" is similarly, inappropriately happy but in once again a strong melodic number with as a duet with Indian playback singer Sunidhi Chauhan.

Faakhir's singing is generally on the mark. There are however certain genres of song on which he is not all that compelling. The lack of edge in Faakhir's vocals is even more evident in "Preetan" which attempts to be a bhangra song: Faakhir's singing makes it even more unconvincing. He can do the pleasant beat oriented songs (remember "Dil Na Lagay") but whenever asked for singing with attitude he seems too proper to get down with it.

"Chal Uth Chaliyay" is contrastingly within Faakhir's range, and a pretty nice song it is. Moreover it has a nice sentiment: 'Des Tur Chaliyae' from the perspective of an expatriate. It is still a pleasant little song and one must after all appreciate the fact that there is still some patriotic element in the album. One wonders if the choir voices are effective here though (they take away from the mood of the song.) One brave decision Faakhir seems to make on this album is to not use pads for songs and instead use a chorus of voices similarly. This might work in epic or acapella based songs but songs with an earthy message like "Chal Uth Chaliyay" it is a mis–step. Other choices he makes are pretty good. He very effectively cites his own "Dil Na Lagay" which is quite cheeky and compellingly links up this song with his earlier patriotic numbers.

Mantra suffers from a lack of inspiration most of all in the lyrics of the album. To his credit Faakhir uses some of the best lyricists around. When I recently talked to him he was frank enough to admit that he cannot get his head around Urdu lyric writing and left it up to specialists. In this spirit he has used various tried hands: Riaz ur Rehman Saaghar, Aqeel Rubi, Nadeem Asad, Shahzad Nawaz, Khawaja Pervaiz and others all contribute. According to him each was chosen according to his strength of style and requirement of song. This approach really does not seem to have worked. What one gets lyrically is lack of cohesion, novelty, and substance. For pop songs the lyrics certainly do the job in filling the space but are nothing more than that. One struggles to find any inspired piece of wordplay or even thought in the words that accompany the album. These are basically lyrics by the rupee and are ultimately equally trite. Aqeel Rubi who once wrote "Manwa Re" appears to have reduced himself to writing lyrics such as 'Zulfoon ko choo kar tum jab muskarati ho/ Bijlee girati ho' ("Tauba Hai").

The lesser songs on the album are not particularly weak. It is just that they are not all that great or convincing or fail to work a charm. The title track is a case in point: "Mantra" is a "musical" in the words of Faakhir. I think he means to say it is a production number in the mode of, say, Queen (who appear to be a common inspiration to at least two of the three Awaz boys; Assad Ahmad is a Kiss fanatic). Credit must of course be given to Faakhir for attempting to be eclectic and bringing in a lot of disparate elements. But as said earlier, a lot of them rarely work or have previously similarly been better used by someone else ("Bohemian Rhapsody" or a number of A. R. Rehman numbers). Faakhir is more or less like a kid lost in a candy shop, he takes a bite at everything and for all the sweetness, the end result is somewhat uneasy. Choir voices, strings, something out of Opera, the piece does not go anywhere and really, for all its spirit of adventure – does not seem to work. The moment in the song where Faakhir goes 'Jadoo,' the effect is almost comedic. Apparently the song was inspired by Iqbal's concept of 'Kuuddi' [sic]. I fail to see how. lines like 'Jeenay ke liye/ Marna parta hai/ Larna parta hai' are superficially deep. Compare this with the ambition and success of say EP's "Irtiqa" and the more seasoned artist is dwarfed by the kids.

"Kurri" has apeggios a tad too close to Ali Noor's "Sari Raat Jaga" (whereas the Noor song turned to drum 'n bass, here the beat is a trite bhangra), there is the Punjabi MC guitar lead (that Knight Rider bhangra song perhaps), is laden with pointless rap and generally is middling middle of the road bhangra fare, somewhat better than "Preetan."

At the end of the day, Adnan Sami, Sonu Nigam and a little bit of A. R. Rehman is what informs this album principally. It may well be a canny marketing decision. Indian record label, T–Series, has apparently signed Faakhir on for the next three years. Sadaf releases the album in Pakistan. The Indian market and the Indian music listening market seems to be the prime target of the audience this time.

It shows in the competent production as well. However as with most artists who do the India thing – notwithstanding Adnan Sami Khan who is a big fish, those who head on over to our neighbour land (a la Strings) lost some of their edge with (consider a middling "Dhaani" after the excellent "Duur"). Faakhir seems to be getting in the same rut for aiming for the bigger but clearly less demanding Indian pop listening public.

Ultimately the product that is "Mantra" is sadly not up to scratch. There is and was much going for the album. It followed the smash debut "Aatish" and the interim filler the "Sab Taun Sohniyeh" album and had the added advantage of coming up when there has been a lull in the market. Faakhir still retains some of his melodic brilliance but this is really an album of the sort that plays in the car of a friend who is a Bollywood Music lover and one tolerates when riding shotgun. A trite Bollywood album, informed by some of the better Bombay music crossed with a sprinkling of his own influences, something that in the end result does not really work. For a closet Faakhir fan, "Mantra" is underwhelming.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
The News International, Pakistan