Scaling Walls

For the last decade or so, Junoon has been categorized as Pakistan's best music band, and in true celebrity style, have remained in the news for their music or their personal lives. Courted by controversy, mired in myriad debates surrounding their music and always seemingly at odds with the powers that be within the music industry and beyond, Junoon have lived up to the tag of the rebellious souls of Pakistani music. And yet, amidst all the anti-political posturing, the love-hate relationship with the media, kicking up storms with statements of one ilk or the other, they have successfully managed to stay at the top of their game by doing what they know best and sometimes better: making good music. If you don't believe that, ask one of the thousands of Junoonis who buy their music and flock their concerts and swear by the name Junoon. Their music may have undergone a metamorphosis over the years, moving from guitar-driven-rock to head banging stuff and then on the religion shading sufi-rock to the hinting of Adult Rock in a contemporary mode to a more commercial/filmi style, but clearly, the junoon is still with them.

Their last album, "Ishq", generated a lot of criticism from fans and critics alike for its distinct abandonment of the sufi-rock genre and its obvious flirtation with a more filmi, mushy style. While this writer would tend to agree that musically, the album didn't gel in to a great extent and did not serve as the perfect bridge for the gulf that existed between their previous style and their newly acquired taste for the lighter stuff. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that as the premier band in Pakistan, there is a fairly heavy responsibility on Junoon to lead the way when it comes to critical decisions on the shape and sound of their music. Then again, that's how it works in Pakistan; it becomes so easy for anyone to set a trend. But evolution has to happen, and like many other international acts, Junoon also made a bold step to change their style of music. They have been the pioneers when they started off with rock in the local scene, then not too familiar with even the R of it. "Ishq" was 1990 revisited in the context of going with your own flow and working hard to convert the disbelievers. For all their commercial savvy listeners, "Ishq" demonstrated to me at least, that being true to their own musical inclinations, was still the first priority for the band.

That said, the album did come in for much of flak at the hands of both sincere fans and the omnipresent hacks. So it would be perfectly reasonable to expect the band to bow before the criticism, revert back to a formulaic approach on their new album, dismiss "Ishq" as an insignificant blip on their career radar and stow it away in the attic and go back to dabbling in the sufi-rock genre, right?

Wrong. In true Junoon style, their new album, "Dewaar", moves on from where they left off on "Ishq". Not only is the music predominantly and significantly devoid of aspirations towards sufi-rock or any other formula-driven style, it presents an intriguing attempt at marrying political statements with personal expressions, as well as trying to make honest bedfellows out of rough-hewn rock and neo-pop. Importantly, with so much having been said about the imminent demise of Junoon as a group, the making of "Dewaar" is the perfect riposte to all these rumours.

One year in the making and flitting across two continents as it was mixed and produced in Pakistan and in the U.S., "Dewaar" is a statement of hope amidst the many hurdles, the resistance and the prejudices that surround our lives today, particularly against the backdrop of 9/11. The eleven songs on the album are not structured in the sense of revolving around a defined theme, as they touch upon romance, political realism and idealism, but the songs send out positive vibes and have an outlook that falls short of being naive but is sincere. Contrary to everyone's expectations, the album does not contain any English songs and "No More" which has been on heavy rotation on music channels, does not feature on "Dewaar" as it will form part of an English album-being launched through EMI, U.K. - that will follow the release of "Dewaar". To me that's a plus, for I've never been too keen on multi-lingual albums as they tend to dissipate the mood, unless very tightly woven into a specific musical theme and treatment.

Three things stand out for me on the new album, which is due to hit the market on July the 15th: one, the continued pursuit of a sound that nestles somewhere between rock and pop; two, the swapping of some roles and evolution of others within the band; and three, the improved production values on the album which give it a crisp, tight sound. As we've said, "Dewaar" continues the journey begun with "Ishq" in terms of musical outlook in that it consciously tries to shake off the strait-jacketing of the band in a music genre and tries to break free from the confines of stereotyping. All the songs may eventually be sending out messages - some subtle others harsh - about the need to hope for and believe in better days, but musically, the album is diverse with the softer gentler tones of "Sapney" vying for attention with the bluesy-funky grooves of "Pappu Yaar". This is clearly a result of the growing input of Ali in making the music for the band. Two of the songs on "Dewaar", the excellent opener "Taara Jala" and "Sapney" have their music done by Ali and present a sound that is fairly distinct from the rest of the songs on the album. And as part of the evolution of the roles of band members, while Ali dabbles with making music, the album sees the launch of Salman as a serious vocalist.

This role swapping is to me one of the exciting facets of the new album. Clearly, both have miles to go and promises to keep in their new roles, but it has to be said that Ali's music and Salman's singing (on the title track which was initially made in English, "Hangama" and the remake of "Khwaab" as well as backing up on "Ghoom Tana") are outright revelations. What is also very obvious on the new album are the high production values, as the work of John Alec and Shehzad Hasan and all the people at Imaad Studios at Karachi and John Alec Studios in New York have lent the album a well-knit, tight sound. Too often, Pakistani music has suffered as much for lack of quality content as it has for poor production values, but on "Dewaar" there's a good package on offer.

There are a number of songs that catch one's attention, including the romantic "Taara Jala", the flirtation with Ghalib on "Hangama" and the enchanting remake of "Khwaab" - which will be used as an anthem for a U.N. HIV/AIDS campaign. But to me, the strongest material on the album comes in the form of three songs: "Pappu Yaar", which is a funky, tongue-in-cheek, index finger salute by the band to the people who are trying to write Junoon off (critics and bands alike); "Garaj Baras", which dominates with Ali's vocal play; and "Ghoom Tana", which can be predicted a future hit with its inspiring feel and message. Incidentally, Ali Noor of Noori features as a guest vocalist on this song. It is also interesting to note that the band reveals some of their influences by way of the title song, "Dewaar" which is almost homage to Nirvana, particularly their "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Baarish", which is inspired by Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore". But these two songs along with "Maza Zindagi Ka", which Junoon should file under 'forgettable', represent the weaker commercial links in the album. There is also "Jhoolay Lal", which appears to be a sufi-rock number included on the album for ol' times' sake, but will have them dancing in the aisles nevertheless, for Junoon have this kind of music down to pat.

Sabir Zafar's lyrics tend to lose their intensity, something Junoon has to look on while nobody can beat Ali in the race for the best vocals. Similarly, Salman's playing and the work of the unsung hero of the band, Brian, continues to mesh together well. Junoon proves to be better called men than boys. Though, "Dewaar" might not define the new Junoon sound completely and while it represents a major step forward from "Ishq", I believe that Junoon's next Urdu album would be another healthy step in the music. There are still some loose ends to the album and the kind of solidity that emanates from the artist being at complete ease with what he has produced does not readily come though on this work. What "Dewaar" does do however, is to prove the band's confidence in themselves and their desire to make music that is as much a real-politic statement as it is a reflection on their personal lives.

Farrukh Moriani
July, 2003
The News International, Pakistan