There must be something different in the Chennai air to produce someone as quirky as Harsha Iyer. He sticks out like a sore thumb among his peers with his penchant for making outrageously good pop-rock music. Think about it – how many other upcoming Indian pop artists can you name? Barely 20 years old, Harsha Iyer has managed to bring back respect to the otherwise ridiculed and derided pop music scene. Other musicians have been too afraid to incorporate pop music into their repertoire, but Harsha has stayed true to his heart and produced some original and exciting music via his two albums. Yes, you heard right – only 20 years old and he already has two albums under his belt with a debut album released when he was only a teenager at 19 years of age.
Chennai- bred singer-songwriter and master of numerous musical instruments, Harsha Iyer surprisingly only picked up the guitar at the age of 16. In the next couple of years he transformed himself into a serious artist by also learning to play other instruments like the drums, piano, bass, etc. His ability to learn music by ear without knowing the theory behind it is a testament to his boundless talent as a musician. After realizing that he was born to create music, he bravely decided to drop out of college and focus full time on learning and producing music. Soon enough he was performing with a punk rock outfit from Chennai but as the amount of original material by him began to accumulate he decided to go solo.
The time to do so could not have been better. Chennai was quietly and simultaneously turning into a centre for experimental music, giving him the perfect opportunity to make a mark as an independent artist. Comfortably isolated from the Metal scene gripping the country, Chennai became home to many pop-rock, funk, jazz and experimental artists. Had Harsha chosen another time or place to come out as a solo musician, he would have probably faded away but his continued success in the industry can only be attributed to his immense talent and not luck or fate. Being the tenacious youngster that he is, he released his debut album Curious Toys in September 2011 from his own recording studio called Studio Utopia.
Within a short span of time, he released the follow up album to Curious Toys called When Its Time (Part1) on 18th July, 2012. This album is one half of the 20-song album he has planned to release over a year. He has accomplished the Herculean task of bettering his debut album, which was a masterpiece in itself. Where Curious Toys was unrefined and emotional, When Its Time is polished and dark. As is with all his music, Harsha Iyer has written, recorded, sung, produced, mixed, mastered and played all the instruments on every song in When Its Time. Such an approach to the creation of music can only be called avant-garde and it is hard to place a finger on specific influences.
When Its Time tackles diverse emotions such as love, betrayal, loneliness, uncertainty, etc. The perfect time to listen to this album is when youre going through a quarter-life crisis. The general theme of this album is the loss of control over ones life to fate/destiny, the unfairness of it all and the sense of despair accompanying situations that one cannot control. Harsha cleverly includes generic characters to beautifully and lyrically explain specific situations. The often uplifting tunes belie the twisted and gloomy lyrics.
Musically, the album is more mature, evolved, restrained and minimalistic than Curious Toys, with heavy influences from 80s post-punk, electronic, pop-rock, indie-pop and folk. As always, his songs push boundaries by breaking free from conventional composition and structure as the tracks have chaotic beats, sudden tempo changes and unexpected collisions. Adding to this, his unorthodox, scratchy voice and great vocal range give a very vaudevillian impression. One can imagine Harsha Iyer as the Mad Hatter in the midst of a whirling musical circus cackling away as people fall under the spell of his music. His eccentric singing style, which is wild, confident and almost feral, immediately brings to mind artists like Mika (although he lacks Mikas grand falsettos), Paolo Nutini, The Beatles and The Kooks. Each track contains great vocal harmonies and a dramatic instrumental outro that contrast with the often melodic piano and acoustic guitar drenched first half. It must be noted that When Its Time is better as a whole than the sum of its parts. The downside being that the songs are not very distinct and none will stick out to become an earworm.
Better Prospects starts off with a country feel with great acoustic guitar strumming, the acoustic sound contrasting brilliantly with the crazy vocals. Through this track Harsha advises us to move on from a sour relationship and find better partners. I must admit the comparison between shoe shopping and looking for the right man/woman is quite disconcerting. Mid way the song begins to fade with an atmospheric piano solo, changing the tempo of the tack quite suddenly, and ends with a wacky electronic section.
If you agree with In the Name of Entertainment then you know youre getting old! The song laments about the insensitivity and cruelty of the present generation. Apart from the slightly depressing lyrics, the track is quite upbeat with a lovely piano melody and theatrical finish.
Mystery Woman is probably my favourite track on the album. As the title suggests the song is about a mysterious woman who the singer fantasizes over. The ominous overture thankfully leads into a melodic track that has a rich vibe with great contrasting layers of music.
No Easy Answer- Again, a pretty sinister intro and disheartening lyrics goes against the otherwise up-tempo music. Most of his tracks contain simple, straight-forward lyrics – exemplified by an excerpt from this track: Why does a man more undeserving than I hold the key, to the kingdom and all that should be so rightfully mine….
Never Enough is dominated by excellent vocal harmonies almost giving a church choir feel to the song. A bizarre cough track introduces this song about greed and Harsha seems draw influences from spoken word to drive the point home.
The next track Awkward Silence has a folksy upbeat melody that seems to mock the predicament of the lyrics main character who cannot seem to impress the girl he likes. As with the other tracks, the song suddenly deviates and ends on an ominous note.
Let Me Into Your House is a funky, jazzy number with surprisingly mellowed vocals at the beginning. This must have been a cathartic experience for Harsha as he pours his frustrations of being a struggling musician into this song. The cacophony created by the various musical instruments lends an energetic air to this track.
Like a Fool is the most confounding track on this album. The sudden jarring electronic sections thrown in are not only disjointed but also totally unnecessary. This track takes the experimental theme a bit too far, unlike the other tracks which manage to stay relevant yet edgy.
This Is Not It is a thunderous, cinematic, psychedelic track. With a dominating background score, lack of guitars and Harshas astounding vocal range, this track showcases the immense talent and eccentricity that he possesses. The song speaks of a father giving worldly advice to his naïve son.
The album then moves onto the darkest of all the 11 tracks – lyrics wise. 15 Year Old Lily is the story of a young rape victim who has to come to terms with not only the traumatic event but also the treatment meted out to her by the village people after the incident. On the word of her attacker, they brand her a whore. This song fits right in with the theme of not having control over the things that happen to us. The orchestral sound and vocal harmonies cushion the blow of the hard-hitting lyrics.
The last track When Its Time is a fantastic and perfectly apt end to this edgy album. It is a purely instrumental track with Harsha ditching the guitar to achieve a truly grand and epic sound. It is uplifting and hopeful and bodes of good things to come. The amazing percussion and piano flourishes transport the listener to a happier place. This relaxing and optimistic track is very different from the other tracks on the album, which are more dark and twisted. The talent of this young musical prodigy on this track is jaw dropping. Just the fact that he played all the instruments and basically did everything else by himself is mind blowing.
I cannot begin to express my respect for such a talented and passionate musician. His gumption and drive are truly admirable especially in someone so young. Though it was hard to critique such an experimental album, with barely any discernible conventional structure, it was a rewarding experience. Harsha manages to tackle specific relevant topics with his trademark eccentricity and wit. When Its Time is a labor of love and time and a lot of hard work went into making it, so set aside your prejudice against non-metal or rock music and give this album a chance. Judging from the evolution of Harsha Iyers music from Curious Toys to When its Time (Part 1), When its Time (Part 2) is going to be a cracker of an album. Part 1 of When its time is slowly garnering great reviews and a sizable fan base through word of mouth and the Internet and I am not the only one waiting in anticipation for Part 2 which is scheduled to release in a few months. I can only hope that there will be a Harsha Iyer live show in Bangalore in the future.