Whenever a popular rock band has reached a certain point in a lengthy career, they will typically take one of two paths: they either shift their style to stay relevant and suit the ever evolving tastes of new listeners (and risk accusations of being sell-outs), or they stick to their sound, rehashing the same songs again and again until they’re pumping out vapid, uninspired releases seemingly on auto-pilot. Within a few decades, a band will begin to show signs of gravitating towards one or the other, and for fans of these decaying rock bands, either fate is difficult to watch. While Bangalore based band Thermal and a Quarter don’t quite yet have enough years to fit the “aging rocker” stereotype, they have certainly lasted longer than most rock bands can hope for with almost a twenty-year career under their belts. With their newest record, The Scene, they don’t yet show many signs of falling into this dichotomy. Instead, they remain true to their sound while simultaneously invigorating it with a refreshing look at today’s music culture.
TAAQ have built a name for themselves during their tenure in India’s independent music scene; extensive international touring and a GIMA award for their previous album, 3 Wheels 9 Lives, grace the band’s list of accomplishments. This is all the more impressive considering that since the band’s formation in 1996, they have kept themselves firmly rooted in a distinctly 90’s rock/funk/jazz sound. Honestly, with Thermal’s affinity for funky bass grooves, chicken scratch guitar, and kitsch lyrics, The Scene would fit right in had it been released twenty years ago. That’s not, however, to say it’s bad. Yes, it’s unbearably cheesy at times, but Thermal and a Quarter play and sing with such a warm charisma that they somehow get away with it.
The entire concept of The Scene is something of a mixed bag at first listen. On one hand, it’s brilliant; I applaud Thermal’s spot-on illustrations of many of the movements in today’s indie music scene. On the other hand, they do so with such embarrassingly goofy lyrics that it becomes hard to take anything they say seriously. But maybe that’s the point– most of the songs deal with different issues in our music culture, and they caricature and lampoon those who perpetuate them. Frontman and guitarist Bruce Lee Mani pokes fun at well funded bands that no longer have to take artistic risks in ‘I’m Endorsed Are You’, singing, “You got a free guitar? Oh that’s really cool/ Let me show you my collection, It’ll make you drool”, and eventually concluding “’Cause I, I’m endorsed, I don’t have to play”. From the arrogant-yet-infallible rock stars and those who follow them, from the ultra-trendy hipsters and their underground indie bands, TAAQ takes jabs at everyone. These guys are snarky, and they’re not afraid to show it. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes the band’s cheesiness is too much. Such is ‘Dig the Chicks’, a song about the increased presence of females at rock shows. It contains what is easily the most embarrassing lyric on the album: Mani sings, “Don’t you be no ape when you pitch your woo/ She can tell her Dylan from her Fighters Foo”. Seriously, that one made me cringe.
Though Thermal can be cheesy, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re not saying anything meaningful. On many occasions the band manages to be poignant by recognizing the frustration of trying to get by in the music industry. They wrestle with topics ranging from venues and funding on ‘The Sponsors Backed Out’ to being disregarded on stage by the audience (and suffering the bane of loathsome ‘gig-talkers’) on the title track, where Mani sings, “It’s getting cold here in this spotlight/ While you rattle your cutlery/ Don’t let me play a hole in your conversation/ All I know is that this joke’s on me”. It’s points like these where Thermal’s conception on The Scene really succeeds, and even when their lyrics can be unseemly, the band manages to still be cheeky and endearing due to their commitment to it (as well as Mani’s emotive delivery). What is unique about all this is that for band that’s playing with a sound that had its heyday years ago, Thermal and a Quarter are astonishingly aware of not only today’s movements in the music scene but also their place in it. This is a band that refuses to change who they are, and whether that’s good or bad largely depends on your immediate feelings on the rock/funk/jazz sound.
On a technical level, the band plays tightly together. Leslie Charles’ effervescent bass lines play counterpoint to frontman Bruce Lee Mani’s angular guitar riffs, while the drums (courtesy of Rajeev Rajagopal), keep pushing the songs forward with just the right amount of flourish to keep things engaging. Blending hard-hitting rock riffs, jazz chords, and prog song structures is something that the band specializes in. The result is complex; funk polyrhythms and tonal oddities abound, and yet it’s never overwhelming. TAAQ strike a balance of creating intricate melodies that grant an affable sense of smoothness. One such example that must be praised are their guitar solos, such as those in ‘Like Me’ and ‘Flok Rock’. While more straightforward, hot-headed rock bands can have a tendency to try and impetuously fling off notes as fast as possible during guitar solos, Thermal’s jazz solos in contrast are even and measured– they might not be as fast or technically impressive, but they actually make musical sense and are appropriate for the song.
Sonically, it’s genuinely impressive that the trio is able to layer so many sounds and parts together at certain points. The Scene obviously has your standard fare of guitars, bass, and drums, but it also features synths, horns, keyboards, and even accordion, all of which were recorded live. The instrumentation has a decent amount of textual variation between songs that keeps the album from growing overly stale. The saw synth under the main rock riff on ‘GodRocker‘ adds a subtle touch of colour to the song, while the accordion passage on the otherwise simple titular track grabs your attention as it waltzes along. However, these points of instrumental experimentation are so sparse that it feels like there is a lot of wasted potential– which is a shame especially because these are some of the best parts on the album. I enjoy the song ‘MEDs‘ as it lampoons today’s laptop-toting DJ’s (“Nothing grooves as sick as a MacBook Pro”), and with its disco beat leading some quick funk strumming, but it’s the final minute that makes it truly memorable. With vocoder voice effects and guitar picking soaked in delay, it’s like they’re channeling Daft Punk, but it’s over before it ever gets going. It may be a great climax, but the rest of the song just seems dull by comparison. The jazzy solo Rhodes piano intro to ‘Going to Abroad’ is likewise a highpoint, but it too is criminally short when it leads into a low-key smooth jazz chords and Mani’s gentle falsetto singing. While these songs certainly aren’t spoiled by these out of the ordinary sounds, it would feel more solid if they were implemented more comprehensibly and in a way that broke the mold for that prog/jazz/funk sound we’ve all heard before.
Another issue with The Scene is its some-what bland dynamics and production. While the band clearly has the technical skill to play with finesse, this effort’s production tends to make it feel… flat. Though the album is rife with overlapping harmonies and instruments, they sometimes sound as if they’ve all been pressed together. The horns throughout the album, for example, sound oddly unexpressive and lack the richness one hopes to find in brass instruments. While the band states they were recorded live, you would be forgiven for thinking that they’re just old second-hand Yamaha keyboard horn sounds that were laid on top of the guitars and drums. On songs such as ‘Like Me’ and ‘Dig the Chicks’, the drums seem too low in the mix, and I wish they had sounded just a bit punchier to pierce through the guitars. ‘Like Me’ in particular has an odd moment in the second half of the song where the band starts playing softly into a crescendo. Though the band tries to pick up the music by adding on parts and voices, it never really goes anywhere– it just goes from quiet to slightly less quiet. To be fair though, the album’s production is completely functional, but it does lack just a bit of depth and dynamism that would have really pushed it ahead. While all these seem like minor gripes (and admittedly, they are), they do hold The Scene back from being an even better record.
Ultimately, how you feel about The Scene is determined by how you felt about Thermal and a Quarter twenty years ago. I can’t help but feel like the sounds on this record are dated, but then again, TAAQ clearly aren’t ones to let the new trends sway their thoughts on what they want to play. The band themselves admit it, singing, “Our story’s been the same Since 1996”. If you like their sound, their latest effort is sure to please you. If not, then go ahead and give it a listen anyway; they have a lot of good things to say, and if the music doesn’t draw you in, then with any luck their smirking commentary of our music scenes will.