Death to Hinglish!
The first time I was impressed by the successful pulling off of English lyrics and vocals by a local pop/rock band was way back in 1995 when the enterprising Lahore under–grounders, Coven, released their first (and only) album. Even though they failed to add anything new to their straight–faced homage to early '90s grunge, the effort was worth a serious listen.
Well, at least it was a far cry from disasters like Junoon's 1993 dud, "Lady Magic", Aamir Zaki's English version of the otherwise wonderful, "Mera Pyar", and Mohammad Ali Shaiki's god–awful remake of Europe's "Final Countdown" (as if the original wasn't bad enough!).
Then came another underground act (this time from Islamabad), which, almost ten years after Coven's bold move, plunged into the Urdu/Punjabi pop scene with an all–English album. The band was Corduroy and the album, "The Morning After", [now set for a more mainstream release on Tariq Amin's label (gulp!)].
Their music, though a retro–take on the melodic grunge of Pearl Jam, did, however, pull in a few potent punches of their own, such as music that was sparse, raw, and understated (no overbearing, three–chord bombastic–ism).
However, the men of the hour in this respect and context are Peshawar's media–shy and unassuming duo, Sajid & Zeeshan (S&Z). Appearing quietly, almost a year ago on the country's two music channels with a video of a song ("King of Self"), the ditty became a surprise hit.
There were no crashing chords, no blazing guitars or, for that matter, no thumping, monotonous bhangra beats carrying "King of Self".
It was a simple, catchy song revolving around a galloping acoustic guitar, backed by a steadily paced soft–techno beat, flying over a highly likable melody, and, above all, some very convincing vocals. The lyrics, (though not as angst–ridden as Corduroy's), remained impressive in (indirectly) communicating the pitfalls of corporate commercialism in the local pop scene.
"King of Self" set the perfect platform for S&Z to launch themselves as serious contenders for a top slot in the rapidly advancing (if not exactly evolving), Pakistani pop scene.
So, instead of following the "logic" behind the practice of approaching "shady" local record labels like most top notch players in the scene usually do; and then after saying (an albeit polite) but firm "no" to a large telecommunications company interested in sponsoring them, S&Z eventually landed at the doorstep of EMI–Pakistan.
Those in the know would remember EMI–Pakistan once being the land's biggest and most influential recording and distribution music label that once had pop luminaries like Alamgir, Shaiki, Nazia & Zoheb, Vital Signs, Ali Haider, and Junoon as clients.
Mars in Furs
Conscious of the now overwrought nature of the hype that started to plague "King of Self", the album instead kicks off with "Have to Let Go Sometime". And what a start it is.
Sajid Ghafoor's vocals are a lot more than merely convincing. This guy can not only sing well in English, but he does so with a lot of soul and authority. And he's equally good as a wordsmith; avoiding most pop lyrical clichés and coming up with words that show him to be a man who discovers his insides by the astute observations he makes of his general surroundings. This gives his lyrics a sense of universality as well.
The man behind the band's music isn't far behind. Already impressing everybody with "King of Self" and his cutting–edge videos, Zeeshan turns the song into a complex, but melodic prog–fest.
"Have to Let Go Sometime" is thick with admirable allusions to the early–70s progressive rock of the likes of the Peter Gabriel era, Genesis, and the decade's FM–Rock melodic–ism reminding one of Supertramp, Journey, and Boston.
To keep things dynamic, there are a lot of classical prog–rock dynamics at work here, such as sudden tempo changes, weird beat, and time signatures, but all held together by Sajid's souring, almost operatic vocals and a strong sense of melody.
The impressive opener is followed by the more subdued "My Happiness". A lot of you will find a hint of Sting coming out here. But this takes nothing away from the song that though more passive than the album's dynamic opener, retains the solid melodic aspect and impressive lyricism.
However the next one, "Close to You", falls flat the moment it starts and never manages to get itself going. With its surprisingly weak, predictable lyrics, and somewhat lethargic pop melody, it simply withers away.
"Free & Underestimated" gets things back into swing as a composition that works like a sonic whirlpool, drawing the listener in with its crunchy '60s fuzz guitar loops, Latino rock make–up and the return of those odd time signatures. This turns out to be a highlight of the album and on which Sajid is at his best as a lyricist. Unlike on "Close to You", the lyrics here are teasingly unpredictable in the tradition of some of the best college–rock this side of REM, Meat Puppets, and Suzanne Vega.
However, the next number, "Changes" loses the plot all together, floating aimlessly as standard folk–pop whimsy that just goes nowhere. In fact, it's pretty boring, made almost unbearable by Sajid's honey–soaked dribble and Zeeshan's anxious struggle to make his machines sound like Garth Brook's backing band!
Unfortunately, "No Reason Now", though slightly better, is more of the same, procrastinating as predictable, slow soft–pop leakage.
So thank heavens for "King of Self" that arrives as the next number, sounding like a charismatic saviour mopping up all the wet synthetic fur left behind by "Close to You", "Changes" and "No Reason Now".
This is one hell of a song, sounding even more vibrant when placed in the mix here.
The laid–back instrumental, "The Jazz Bit" follows, pleasantly playing itself like modern chill–out lounge stuff made to generate slow, euphoric smiles and general relaxation.
Then the yearning "Glue Master" thankfully sees Sajid returning to top vocal and lyrical form and we hear Zeeshan again having fun, pitching his odd quasi–techno nuances with straight pop melodic-ism.
The slightly edgy mood constructed by "Glue Master" fails to get a stretching by the following number, "All this Time" which, though a competently constructed pop ditty, falls back into fluff, the sort one associates with past masters like Simon & Garfunkel. Nothing wrong, but a bit too much of this soft–pop musing simply drowns the more meaningful melancholic undercurrents found across the album.
The nervy and angst–prone "Free Style Dive" takes care of this with a forceful sonic thud, as the band takes us on a powerful tour of emotions that trigger awkward matters such as self–doubt and helplessness. This is a great number, right besides "Free & Underestimated", "Have to Let Go Sometime" and, of course, "King of Self".
The album comes to a close with the not–so–inspired, "Deserts" that sounds like such an anti–climax after "Free Style Dive". It's quite a drag, really.
The Verdict (Or Guilty until Proven Hip!)
Though refreshingly media–shy and untouched by the pomp and pretensions that surround the pop scene and media, S&Z cannot escape the fact that they are tremendously hip. "One Light Year at Snail Speed" does not fail to deliver the promise it made with the wonderful "King of Self" a year ago. It is a good album bordering on excellence. However, in spite the fact that Sajid Ghafoor is a stunning vocal talent, the album becomes too much of a show piece for his vocal prowess, neutralising the expectations one attached to the whole idea of fusing straight paced folk–rock with quirky ambient music and edgy urban electronica. Zeeshan keeps himself a bit too much in the background, and this is why a handful of tunes on the album fail to go beyond being a dry exercise in aimlessly picking static pop fur.Nadeem F. Paracha