Sampooran - Mekaal Hasan Band (2004)

I'm smiling wide. When was the last time I smiled this way after listening to a Pakistani pop album? Back in 1991 due to the Vital Signs solidly melodic chestnut, "Vital Signs 2". Of course that smile kept getting misplaced and out-weighed by those frowns of anguish every time that awful Pepsi jingle kept rolling like a rude mocking clown at the end of the album. When else? After listening to Junoon's "Inquilaab" (1996). Especially stuff like "Saeein" and "Rooh Ki Pyaas". It's an album I keep going back to ever since Junoon finally caved in to Coke's carbonated demands for logo-on-cover, jingle-in-album BS and went out (my) window! Creative bankruptcy was the 'natural' (?) result. "Dewaar" is a good case in point.

EP, Noori, Ahmed Jehanzeb and especially Fuzon have all impressed me as newcomers; but totally unimpressed I am though by most other (both new and seasoned) acts.

Mainly old warhorses like Hadiqa (these days putting more effort in her wardrobe, than music); and of course Junoon; Abrar, Jawad, Shehzad Roy, et al.

So thank God for the earlier mentioned four. They weren't smile-wide material, as such, but hey, there are many moments in their respective debut albums, which should make matter like Junoon take their cola and run (and make Junaid Jamshed take permanent residence around Raiwind. In fact, should drag pop-naatkhwaan and Tapal mujahid, Najam along as well ... that is if he hasn't already!). Tsk, tsk ... what a waste.

Ah, but then came the long awaited Mekaal Hasan debut album. Having met him once back in Lahore in 1995, he reminded me of a younger version of Aamir Zaki. The eye for technical details, "pure music theories", a soft spot for Pat Methany's neo-jazz phase and an urge to impress the local classical music ustads by matching their magical sitar and tabla runs with the guitar and drums.

Well, eight years later when I finished my first few runs of the "Sampooran" CD, I realized his ambitions hadn't faltered or changed. In fact they had grown into something grander and more ambitious. Something the otherwise brilliant Zaki failed to do on his own solo effort (1995's competent but patchy neo-jazz-meets-FM-pop debut), "Signature".

Because Mekaal on "Sampooran", apart from also building his compositions on generic neo-jazz foundations and constructing a mixture of layers of old-school eastern classical music and traditional Southern Punjab's sufi folk mantras, keeps building in various other styles to keep the music interesting, dynamic and highly assessable, instead of jarring the listener with its wily experimental streaks, or leaving the audience bored with predictable neo-jazz lounge attacks, something Zaki's debut can be accused of.

The styles and genres Mekaal uses other than the ones already mentioned are themselves demanding and require astute musicianship: Such as, '70s-style Progressive-Rock (ala Yes, ELP, and even bits of King Crimson and Jethro Tull); and the kind of Progressive-jazz-fusion of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali's early recordings with Peter Gabriel?

The opening track "Sajan" works as a trailer for the grand shape of things to come. It does not attempt to go beyond the across the board basics of the album, i.e. neo-jazz-fusion (especially communicated by the usual offbeat snare-dominated jazz drumming), and that mixture of Eastern classical dynamics and sufi folk. Nothing stunning, but it works well as a subtle, likeable opener.

But then comes the wizardry "Waris Shah", also one of my favorites. And it is on this piece, Mekaal and his band of seasoned jazz men and classical artists, liberally weave in elements of virtuoso '70s prog-rock, which when played expertly into the basic neo-jazz-meets-eastern classical equation, turns "Waris Shah" into one of the most complex compositions this side of Pakistani (or for that matter Indian) pop.

The mood built by "Waris Shah" is sustained successfully by the melancholic "Raba". On it the band plays with the same mixture of basic and layered styles but slows down the tempo to give Mekaal his first opportunity to often lead in prominent guitar parts which in tone and texture reminds one of Floyd's Dave Gilmore but more so, classical Steve Vai. In the end however, his playing is almost exactly the way a guitar should sound in and around music such as this.

Next in line is "Sanwal". Perhaps the album's weakest link which, in an attempt to achieve a bit too much, fails to go anywhere. In fact almost half way through it just falls flat and sounds as if just going through the motions.

However the setback is soon taken care of by the epical "Sampooran" and "Darbari". The layered formula being used by the band so far now comes to a full circle by virtue of these two tracks which to me sounded like the great Pathanay Khan jamming with vintage ELP or Yes and the flute players of those Buddha Bar compilations! The tempo changes, the dynamic turns, weird and teasing signature lines, wow! It seems Mekaal had been making electric notes while witnessing sufi musicians playing at those wonderful Punjab folk melas in Lahore?

"Ya Ali" is Mekaal's answer to all those so-called heavy metal pretenders who have yet to realize (a fact first realized by '70s Black Sabbath and then grunge men like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains), that heavy rock means slow, crunchy and bulldozer -like guitar riffs and not exactly the shallow drop-D pretensions of Linkin Park, Nickleback and the likes.

This is not to suggest Mekaal proudly salutes Sabbath's heavy-as-hell riff master Tony Iomie, but he does take the crunchy guitar approach to communicate the eerie and haunting malang-on-bhang whiplash of "Ya Ali". It's quite an awesome track, mixing sonic allusions of the dhamaal dance with a classic slow-mo' heavy rock charge.

The instrumental "Late Moon" sums up an excellent debut outing, a track which on the surface may seem like a throwaway filler but flimsy music backboned by minimilistic but mighty addictive quasi-industrial drum beat leaves a hum-able impression in the mind.

Well done, Mekaal. You have arrived!

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
The News International, Pakistan