As you prepare yourself to listen to an album for the very first time, you naturally have a few thoughts running through your head. You have the visual stimulus of the album cover – the making of which is a lost art in itself, the list of personnel and the instruments featured and potentially the reputation of the band or the band members. You connect the dots and you have a benchmark already before you press play. And despite the short-term joy you could get at reasonably being correct about your predictions, theres a tiny part of you that hopes that the music does what it should – simply blow your mind!
Journey by Bangalore-based Indian Classical ensemble SvarAmrita is their debut album. The group comprises vocalists and instrumentalists of great repute, both local and national. While the lacklustre album cover left a lot to be desired, it did not dilute the intrigue that an ensemble with a glut of Indian and Western instruments could possibly bring.
Call me old-fashioned but despite it being possible to listen to any track in any order, you pop a CD in any player, it starts from Track 1 and thats where Ill start my review. I wasnt too pleased with the first track titled ‘Soul’, which is a spoken introduction of what the album is about. Quite unnecessary, since the introductions are already printed on the cover.
Onto the second track titled ‘Journey 1′ where the music finally begins. The song starts off with Pt. Vishwesh Bhats powerful voice reciting a shloka in the raga Jog, in the praise of Lord Ganesh. Punctuated by a keyboard riff that didnt exactly raise hell, the track segues into a tarana in Jog. Other than a bridge in the middle provided by way of a guitar solo, the overall improvisational song gets heavier and higher in pitch as it progresses before being brought to a smooth and blurry conclusion.
The next track ‘He’ presumably seeks to introduce a primary character in the overall album storyline, but the mood is soured at the start itself by the Bond theme arranged around the veena, drums, keyboard and the guitars in the originals recognizable 6-8 time signature. There is a brief period where the song looks to move past the Bond theme with a few interesting jams and phrases, however the song returns to the theme and transitions into another familiar tune Jawani Janeman Haseen Dilruba. Calamity further ensues as the now established medley moves into the Main Hoon Don territory before the song switches to a 4-4 time in a painfully knee-jerk fashion before returning to complete the original Bond tune in the new rhythm. Throughout the song, the mixing and choice of keyboard and drum patches seemed shoddy, trite and often gave it the colour of a TV commercial. Now before you castigate me for being overly critical, I acknowledge that this medley could work wonders live especially with the recognizable tunes, but the song lacks character, depth and originality.
‘She’ – the albums 4th track and from the looks of it, the albums other main character starts out with a brief konnakol vocalization and dives right into an uptempo and folky bass and flute head in the raga Charukauns. The track was excellent going forward with some tasteful veena playing and although there were a few places where its momentum was disrupted, it kept up its energy to elegantly characterize a graceful feminine dance. It is this track where the album begins to get interesting although not all listeners may give it that long.
A beautiful flute alapana in raga Bhoop with a hint of Carnatic raga Bilahari – started off the next track titled ‘Bliss‘. The track sounded like a fresh weekend morning in a rustic landscape, taking the listener on a journey through space and back in time. Arranged particularly well so that it is constantly moving forward and punctuated by stray notes wherever seemingly perfect, this is one of the more stand-out songs in the album and very definitive of the character of the band. More of this please!
The next track did something necessary for every complete body of work bring in hardship. Titled ‘Apart’, the song predominantly in dusk raga Puriya Dhanashree emotes rather strongly that He and She have drifted apart from each other. The groove is provided by an abhang like beat and male voices on the konnakol while the brilliant Pt. Vishwesh Bhat on voice and Pt. Sanjeeth Nayak on the flute more than ably fill the foreground with poignant melodies. Although there are brief lyrical elements in this track, it was tailored primarily to describe an emotion through a soundscape.
‘Together’ is the anti-track of ‘Apart’. Our protagonists werent apart for too long. Set to raga Kalavati and Rageshri, the track starts off with the flute playing what would become the hook for the song. What was noticeable yet possibly unintentional was that the track brought together compositional elements from the previous two tracks forward motion and pleasant ambience from track 5 and konnakol grooves with two male lead voices from track 6 – in a completely new setting. The veena and flute phrases were again impressive here. The song built up to a grand-stand crescendo finish, although the mukhtaya towards the end got a tad predictable it is more to do with the songs propensity towards a live-setting than it being a compositional decision.
The penultimate track, ‘Journey 2′ is where the album starts to veer into predictable territory despite the songs heavy improvisational nature. Konnakol was again a part of the groove here, but the core of the song is the jugalbandi between the male voice vocalising in Indian solfege or sargam in raga Jog again and the rhythm section of percussion and bass guitar. Continuing from where another song left off long ago was an important addition to the plot of the album.
The final track, ‘Swa-Desh‘, is a rendition of Vande Mataram in raga Desh. Meant as a tribute to the country, the track is the longest in the album at over 6 minutes long; however, its position in the album plotline is dubious at best. But lets take nothing away from the instrumentation. A thorough yet terse exploration of the raga with the instruments timed well, the track is also another evidence of the signature sound of SvarAmrita.
First the sticking points; the mixing of the album was certainly not up to the mark. You need to dig deep to hear any of the percussion in the album and when you finally do, the percussion, especially the mridangam sounds programmed and poorly so. Some of the keyboard patches sounded like they came from toys; hardly befitting of the plot and the character of the album. In a total runtime of 40 minutes, it took a little more than 10 minutes for the album to start getting interesting. The drab album cover and the hype of a grand ensemble also did not help. Despite being blessed with a glut of vocalists, vocal lines were few and mostly resorted to unspectacular konnakol vocalisations. A dearth of lyrics, although not always a bad thing, is highly conspicuous in the face of a little too many alapanas. And most worrying of all, it was disheartening to see that none of the original composers of some of the tunes and lyrics Monty Norman, John Barry, David Arnold, Bappi Lahiri, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and All India Radio (composer of the tune in raga Desh is believed to be Pt. Ravi Shankar) were given any credit.
The reason for all this negativity is because there was some encouragingly good music to savour and go back to. SvarAmrita, as musicians definitely have potential and immense talent which was clear even before you played the album, but if they are to make a body of work that they want people to possess and treasure, then they will need to focus on composition, distinction to the extent of sounding well ahead of their time and making their albums more than just a recording of improvisations. Individually, there were standout elements like the veena, flute and the voices but coming together as an ensemble did not seem to work. Itd be fair to say that Journey never took off despite having the resources, but as a debut album, it can only promise a bright future for the budding ensemble.
Personnel (as mentioned in the album):
All tracks composed and arranged by: Vishwesh Bhat
Veena: Shruthi Kumar, Manjeera Valluri, Ashwini Bhat
Flute: Sanjeeth Nayak
Keyboard: Sushruth Kanathur, Rajiv Jois
Guitar: Abhishek Gaur, Sumanth Raghavendra
Violin: Aditya MP
Percussion: Phanindra Bhaskara, Krishnananda Prabhu, Santhosh
Vocals: Vishwesh Bhat, Raghupati Jha, Pavan, Sowrabha, Shruthi Kumar, Swati Murthy