There has never been a formula for success as far as a metal band goes more so for a band that is based in India. How do you make the average metal lover to take notice of your efforts? Does war-paint and crazy stage antics help your bands cause? Do you stick to the basics and play it the old-school way? Or do you try and incorporate the new sounds that are redefining the entire metal canvas? What exactly defines a metal band and the perfect metal sound in the metal hotch-potch that is India?
Bangalore-based The Down Troddence seems to have found an answer to the above question. A musical style that is a marriage of the thrash and groove metal sub-genres, and also having large dollops of traditional folk music elements from Kerala, seems to have worked wonders for the bands rise up the metal popularity ladder. The Down Troddence is one of the very few bands in the circuit who have successfully managed to incorporate Indian folk influences into their metal sound without it sounding either forced or cheesy. This is no surprise, since the band, having originally started their journey in Kannur (Kerala), are well acquainted with the folk sounds of their home state. The bands musical approach has ensured that they do not sound like the typical run-of-the-mill Indian metal act, and indeed, their style resonates strongly in their original compositions, many of which are showcased in their debut album How Are You? We Are Fine, Thank You.
This is a commendable debut effort, and Keshav Dhars fine production and engineering is certainly a plus point for the album. The artwork, conceived by Abhijith VB, is interesting to say the least, and the artist has done a fine job in capturing the essence of the featured songs in his sketches. The overall album production and packaging get a big thumbs-up and based upon just these two factors, if you are a collector of albums from the Indian metal underground, then this is without a doubt an album worth purchasing.
It took one spin of How Are You? We Are Fine, Thank You to convince me that The Down Troddence are indeed a band for the future. Their debut album, while not the most original piece of musicianship currently in circulation, indeed has its moments and luckily enough these far outweigh the clichéd elements that plague this otherwise fine effort.
The album opens with the acoustic ‘A.V.‘ and it is laced with some soothing South Indian influenced sounds. However this tranquil album opener gives way to some crunching guitar riffs and a barrage of power drumming to introduce the albums second track, ‘Hell Within Hell‘. The groove metal influences on this track hit you square between the eyes and the menacing vocals of front-man Munz also lends an overall dark feel to this track. An enjoyable composition indeed, but probably not the most original and you will definitely have heard similar sounds from countless other bands. The lyrics however add some depth to the track, and they talk about the politically motivated crimes that take place in their home-town.
‘KFC‘ is the next song and the band changes gear from groove metal to post hard-core. This track is an enjoyable listen no doubt, but it sounds way too much like a Scribe composition. This apparently clichéd approach from the band in the albums first few songs may disappoint a few listeners who might have been expecting something a bit more radical after being labeled by many connoisseurs as an experimental metal band. However, for those of you who enjoy modern metal this would probably not be too much of an issue.
‘Death Vanity’ is where things slowly start to take shape. One of the bands first compositions, this song too is heavily layered with both thrash and metal-core influences. The chorus section has a very rock-anthem like feel to it and it is one of the heaviest songs on the album.
The song ‘Nagavalli’ is a bone-crunching story of a woman who lets go of her suppressed anger to become the vengeful Nagavalli, a character from the film Manichithrathazhu. The religious chanting, the crushing guitar riffs and the top-notch drumming of Ganesh Radhakrishnan, make this a delightful composition and it is easily one of the best tracks on the album.
The moment you hear the hypnotic guitar intro on the song ‘Forgotten Martyrs’ you just know that Baiju Dharmarajan has lent a hand to this track. And indeed that is the case Baijus unique guitar skills are the main focus of this composition, and you find yourself taking a trip down memory lane, to the days when another band from Kerala, Motherjane, ruled supreme. ‘Forgotten Martyrs’ is most certainly the stand-out song on this album, and try as you might, nothing but Baijus surreal guitar work seems to register in your brain throughout the duration of this song.
The next track ‘Muck Fun Mohan’ is a song about the plight of the common man, and it is another well thought-out composition, especially on the lyrical side. Musically, it is yet another amalgamation of the different metal sub-genres that feature heavily on this album a mixed bag of sounds, but an interesting listen nonetheless.
The next track ‘Ortniavis’ takes the listener down the religious route bell chimes and chants in a tribal Malayalam dialect feature heavily on this track, and this composition acts as the perfect intro to The Down Troddences massively popular ‘Shiva’. A brutally heavy song, ‘Shiva’ is sung totally in Sanskrit. As in ‘Ortniavis’, the bell chimes and religious chanting feature heavily on this track as well. The metal-core riffing and the breakdowns manage to blend in with the traditional sounds with sumptuous ease, and without a doubt the band are at their experimental best on this composition.
The Down Troddence closes out their debut effort with ‘Chaapilla’ another effort in experimentation. The sonic layers that have been created here provide a distinctly ethereal effect to the song, and this all builds up until everything seems to come crashing down under an avalanche of guitar riffs towards the end of the track. Literally translated as dead foetus, ‘Chaapilla’ is a statement about the hopeless state of our countrys youth. The lyrics of this song are masterly, but this goes for all the featured tracks on this album lyrically The Down Troddence is no flash-in-the-pan.
All in all, How Are You? We Are Fine, Thank You does indeed hold up as far as the music goes. Few bands these days make a conscious effort to produce an album that is complete in all respects, so to see this young band trying to achieve all-round perfection in this, their debut effort, speaks loads about the band, their dedication and attitude. The Down Troddence can indeed be proud of their album and a thousand eyes and ears will be on them, waiting for their next piece of work. Expectations and standards have indeed been set high and the band should only blame itself if their next effort fails to appease their metal hungry fans.
Sanjeev Thomas is one of those talented composers who youve barely heard of but whose music youve been jigging to on a regular basis. Hes been a Bollywood bigwig, lending himself to titles like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Jhoota Hi Sahi and Rockstar and before all the elitists out there begin to scrunch their noses to dismiss him, it should be told that he plays guitar for A.R. Rahman too. He started out as an independent musician some of his bands include Buddhas Babies and Buddha Blown (five points if you can point out a thematic similarity) and more recently he headed the Chennai-based rock lineup Rainbow Bridge. With the album Epic Shit, Sanjeev T is back to his origins as an independent musician, so dont be expecting a Rahman-style orchestral setup or Bollywood-esque catch-and-throw moments.
Epic Shit is hardly forgettable. The sound production is pristine. With minimal effort on your part, each note impresses itself like an ant burning under a magnifying glass. Technical excellence is all too obvious – this is unsurprising because Baiju Dharmajan has studded the album with his string-play. In the album, Thomas synthesizes the Carnatic sound-laced prog-tones popularized by Motherjane and Avial, and does a solid job of fortifying the genre. However, while an incredibly pleasurably listen, Epic Shit falls a few breaths short of the epicness it claims.
It is not that the songs arent inspired. They each have a clear quality of narration which I find shamefully missing from a substantial portion of contemporary releases. ‘Chekele’ speaks of the adverse conditions of the peasants of Kerala to Baijus exquisite melodic formations and the vocals mix quality which is like a tribute but with a somber aspect. The song, a version of which was also performed by Avial, seems not to lament but rather to exalt the inherent struggle. ‘Electric Pranaam’, definitely my favorite track, features more engaging riffs and rhythmic sequences. An instrumental piece, it reminds one of Baijus Motherjane moments and the beat-boxing injects a refreshingly prog aspect. Asad Khans sitar, though sparingly present is, as usual, invigorating. This is the song I put on repeat precisely because of its examination of the contemporaneity of apparently traditional Indian sounds. An expression of morning respect to the Gods of music, it abounds in variations of count, tempo and consequently, sentiment think movement from serenity to energetic build-up to a sense of reconciliation. ‘Zamzayo’, matches ‘Electric Pranaam’ in ingenuity, but in its lyrical aspect. A song about pride and faith in ones abilities when isolated, it features gems like Curtain calls/She applauds/Fade out slow and .cant find my way/To that shining day. The musical schema is simple but haunting, accentuating the lyrical effect of a pleasing nonchalance towards extraneous concerns a fitting song to shut out the world with.
‘Palli Vaathil’ has an unmatched local scent. A Keralite folk song of Catholic lineage, it retains a lilting, lounge-ish flow that builds into an edge of frenzy. The flute and raging vocals (Sayanora) stand out, but the banjo, though muted, speaks volume of Santhosh Chandrans obvious skill.
When it starts out, ‘Feel Me Now’ has a bit of a Portishead sensibility. Apparently basic lyrics belie a complex thematic understanding. Speaking, or attempting to speak of a collective human perceptibility, a sort of psychological or sentimental core that all human comprehension responds to, the song features a psychedelic musical ethic, peppering it with Warren Mendosas surreptitiously emphatic guitar. Like its topic, the music has a quality that is juxtapositional the quintessential post-Floyd atmospheric tunes mixed with a gentle high synth. To me, ‘Feel Me Now’ requires more than a couple of listens, but it is a memorable track, with a little effort.
‘Mixed Emotions’ is all about sensual appreciation. With the tap guitar skills of Achyuth, it expresses appreciation for individual emotional and intellectual maturity through introspective experience. ‘Purple Lie’ sings along the same vein, but advocates the exploring of the possibilities of an expanded mind an acid trip mashing information and emotion. To me, it isnt entirely farfetched to conceive of this song as a culmination of the exhortations sung of in ‘Mixed Emotions’.
The thing about Epic Shit is that while it seems flawless, it falls short of being awe-inspiring. There are very few moments that make you sit up, take notice, re-wind and try to pick it up. Baijus style is easily discernible, but I prefer him in The Baiju Dharmajan Syndicate or Motherjane. A bit more of Asad Khan and Roop Thomas (Blakc) wouldnt have hurt either. The album ends up being pleasant and entertaining, but needs to tread a few more steps to be considered brilliant.
What does boggle the mind (in a good way, of course) is the album art. Created by a group of artists called Wow Makers, it gives the likes of The Bicycle Days (Calamitunes) and T.L.Mazumdar (BUeC) a run for their money. Intensely symbolic, it visualizes the fusion the album aims at. Nature plus humanity plus an eye of serendipity allows for a plethora of interpretations, much the songs, though I would give the art an edge over the music.
Nonetheless, the album is worth a listen. It epitomizes the burgeoning popularity of Carnatic laced prog and more importantly, is a testament to Sanjeev Ts effort to substantiate the Indian independent music scene. His return to the five-piece band model marks a reversion to personally crafted, un-industrially packaged music that few would chose to take up after continuing financial and commercial success. But even though one would like to hear more of the guitarist rocking Rahmans Mausam and Escape, what counts is Sanjeev Ts return to the heart.
After listening to Motherjane’s Maktub, I was really looking forward to and all geared up for Baiju’s solo album. Baiju Dharmajan’s first solo album contains six fresh instrumental pieces in a sonic setting quite different from the darker Motherjane palettes. With a catchpenny price on the tag, the album is a steal, given the rich quality of content Baiju offers in this album. The whole album’s got a laid back, feel good approach yet not lacking in mean guitar riffs.
Crossover opens up with a very Steve Vai-Steve Morse-ish jam track Demented. Baiju throws in killer Carnatic riffs right from the start on this album and there is some very accessible riffing and infectious guitar playing. The rhythms section could have been more interesting with live drums. The soloing is very fluid, bluesy yet freak-outish.
The album takes a shift from Saturn-orbiting stuff to breezy biking on seaside highways of Kerala with the next track Alchemy. On this rhythmically complex track in 7/8 time, Baiju goes to his Ilayaraaja roots clearly. With the Tubescreamer on full, the tone is killer and at times throaty, reminding one of the Blow by Blow and Wired sounds of Jeff Beck.
Halo, the third track continues on this breezy outlook with more of the backwaters and china nets atmospheres. With apt circular riffing and a raga-base (closely resembles Hamsadhwani at places), Halo is a jocular trip, which is well contrasted by the next track Cyber Reptile.
Cyber Reptile is one to plug in and go on an ego trip through the cubicles of your office to the coffee kiosk downstairs. As in many songs on the album, the riff is very cyclical turning in circles, with a recurrent theme. The rhythm section is very similar to the electronica albums of Beck and Satriani (Jeff by Beck, 2003 and Engines of Creation by Satch, 2000). The solo has those contextually apt and fantastic breaks of slide-licks. The squeals and bends contribute to the overall futuristic sound scapes amidst the effervescent Carnatic riffing.
Philia is a soulful ballad – hitting the brakes after bucket-loads of riffing and heavy patterns. It is also set in a complex time signature of 5/4 but in a more self-reflective mood, with textures in the style of traditional Carnatic composers. Philia is certain to be the sunset song for many!
The album closes out with the wah-wah heavy, yet softer in overall texture Landscapes which doesn’t feature the flashy guitar playing, but with effects galore paints a picture of fascination that an urban yuppie would get while travelling across the greens of the paddy fields and the clear blue sky somewhere in interior South India.
Overall, there are eclectic soundscapes reminiscent of Asimovian space-fiction, coconut trees, backwaters of Cochin and office cubicles. Instrumental rock in India starts here for me. And surely more Satriani and Vai like sounds can be expected from the “God of Small Strings” Baiju Dharmajan.
Bone of Contention: Carnatic rock is a term used constantly to describe Motherjane’s and more specifically Baiju Dharmajan’s music. For something to be called ‘Carnatic rock’ we need raagas, gamakas and the usual rock components of riffs, power chords and blues licks. The quintessential recording that emphasizes all these aspects of ‘Carnatic rock’ remains ‘Electric Ganesha Land’ by Prasanna (2006). In my opinion,Crossover may not classify as Carnatic rock, but it does set a mood for things to come that may tend more towards it, but at the moment we could term it ‘Desi-Rock’, ‘Native-rock’, ‘roots-rock’ or some other word that hazily captures music set in indigenous environments.
The Mad Festival sprinted into its first few hours, admitting a respectable amount of people into the sprawling venue on a beautiful Thursday morning; at this point, there was only a hint of rain on the horizon with people (rather than the sky) rumbling warnings of possible rains.
Post the invocation, things kicked off at the smaller Callaloo stage with Vayali, a bamboo orchestra. Comprising a number of bamboo drums and flutes, one expected some good energy from these musicians from Kerala. However, their choice of songs wasn’t the most inspiring, and having the sparse crowd right at the beginning of the festival didn’t help matters either. We would’ve loved to see some more traditional stuff from these guys instead of picking up common, run of the mill material, as well as some more energy with the bamboo.
Across the venue, past the Mad Bazaar, old-school metallers Kryptos had the misfortune of opening the festival at the Blubaloo stage to a very limited audience. The sparse crowd, which had certain members from Indian Ocean in their midst, were treated to an unsurprising setlist consisting of concert favourites such as ‘Heretic Supreme’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Mask of Anubis’ and a few other tracks from their latest album Coils of Apollyon. Kryptos are no doubt accustomed to playing to packed crowds at Kyra but they did a fairly good job of trying to keep the energy levels high. Nolan was mostly tongue-in-cheek on stage as they launched into their closing number – ‘Descension’. Unfortunately, they slightly messed up their signature number – though you couldn’t really blame them for exhibiting some lethargy on stage.
Over at the Callaloo stage, Groove No. 3 took the stage right after Vayali, and showcased a brand of funk that one has come to associate exclusively with Chennai. Featuring some stellar vocals courtesy Benny Dayal, these guys pulled off some nice grooves, with some tight drum and bass playing. The crowd, sparse at the beginning, built up through the show. Save for Benny though, the stage presence was lacking. A funk band should not have their bassist sitting down for the duration of their set, especially with bass lines and music with as much groove as these guys. ‘Nowhere to Run’ was a clear stand-out, although their set was a tad disappointing on account of the number of covers in it. Among the covers though, the funky rendition of ‘Summertime’ stood out. The next time round, an all original set would be a welcome change.
While Groove No. 3 occupied the smaller stage, Yodhakaa – a 7 piece-band that blend contemporary rock with Carnatic classical music – were initially scheduled to open the festival but their late arrival bumped Kryptos to the top of the schedule. They played after Kryptos instead and their set included the ‘Jnyaanam’, a song with a really groovy bassline that is arguably the band’s best. What really makes the song is the male-female vocal harmony throughout the track. They also performed ‘Shwetambaram’, which is another track from their eponymous debut album. The song moves from a sombre piece featuring slide guitar to a more upbeat one dominated by a classical guitar solo. Yodhakaa were extremely tight during their entire performance even on their new song- ‘Adhrijhadam’ – which featured a Cajon solo. Their music perfectly complimented the signature 2 p.m. Ooty weather. They closed out their set with ‘Jataa Kataa’, a song from the Ramayana that was sung by Ravana. Bandleader Darbuka Siva is a multi-instrumentalist and musical genius when it comes to songwriting. Their music (on the album and live) is crisp, catchy and rich and they deserve to be heard more. A hurried walk to the Callaloo stage takes us just in time to catch the much-touted Motherjane.
Motherjane has never really been the same since longtime vocalist Suraj Mani and guitarist Baiju departed the band. They’ve soldiered on nevertheless, with new vocalist Vivek who manages to sound exactly like Suraj. Their setlist played out like a greatest hits record but with the fizz taken out. Their performance was quite flat and it got monotonous very soon. New guitarist Santosh can really shred and his classical piece on the ‘Maktub’ intro was fantastic but his solos seemed little rushed. It also didn’t help that almost every Motherjane song follows a similar verse-chorus-verse-guitar-solo-chorus format. ‘Broken’ and ‘Mindstreet’ got some sort of response from the crowd more due to familiarity than any sort of energy from the band on stage. ‘Soul Corporation’, ‘Maya’, ‘Fields of Sound’, ‘Walk On’ etc. were few of the songs they mechanically played before finishing off their set with ‘Karmic Steps’ and ‘Shhh..Listen’. Ironically, not too many people did.
Swarathma played at what must be an unusual time slot for them, bang in the middle of the afternoon. Kicking off with what has become a crowd favourite, ‘Ee Bhoomi’, the energy one is so used to seeing at a Swarathma gig was missing somewhat, Vasu Dixit’s vocals not at their exuberant best. The first couple of songs had something off on the mix on the PA, with the bass drum too high, the guitar levels too low. ‘Ghum’ was executed well and ‘Topiwalleh’ brought some of the energy back, the levels seemed much better than before, and despite a major glitch with the PA, including a couple of seconds of shutdown, the band began to draw some more energy out of the still sparse crowd. ‘Koorane’, featured some Huli Kunitha (Tiger Dance), costumed actors, who seemed to take away from Swarathma’s already impressive stage act rather than add to it. Swarathma did bring some of their awesome energy back for the end, with ‘Pyaar ke Rang’. The little tete-a-tete between Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean and Vasu Dixit also provided some comic entertainment. The ghodi, so much a part of the Swarathma act, was missed though. All in all, Swarathma didn’t disappoint but didn’t exactly blow people away either.
What followed was a close to two hour delay thanks to an incessant pitter patter of the rain. While organizers rushed around, mainly trying to keep things dry and, well, organized, people huddled near the food stalls and other forms of shelter; several even braved a stall with a magician in it! The stall kept the small crowd thoroughly entertained (and dry) and the magician watched with unabashed amusement as they tried to make sense of his various magical paraphernalia and failed repeatedly to the steady stream of self-conscious giggling.
Two hours seemed to pass quickly though, and World Music aficionados Moon Arra were finally taking to the Blubaloo stage. As the cameras hovered around importantly like lumbering giants in the twilight haze, members of the audience who’d run for cover to dignified (the Fern Hills palace) and undignified (Mad signboards serving as makeshift umbrellas) places returned to the eaves of the stage to the ever-welcoming MoonArra (“We don’t mind the rain if you don’t!” said a hardly phased Madhuri). While it strikes us as unfortunate every time we see them live that Moon Arra’s stage presence leaves something to be desired, they never disappoint by way of their music. Madhuri’s vocals are the perfect juxtaposition to the clean, smooth lines that Prakash and Jagadeesh carve with their respective instruments. After a few songs from their album Indian Accent, we realize that this is the perfect segue back into full-fledged performances at the festival after the rains. As a fan for life of Mr. Sontakke’s pitch perfect genius, we bristled when a passerby casually opined – “This Skinney Arra is not bad, man”. Persevering against the urge to strike said passerby, we focused instead on the meager compliment in that statement and re-immersed myself in the dulcet tones of the vocalist. The band didn’t have much of an audience to play to, with pockets of people watching from various angles – but it was borderline acceptable what with the rain pouring a damper on events.
Skinny Alley, over on the Calaloo stage, was quite the interesting act, clearly intent on keeping with the times. Fans of their earlier releases, such as 2003’s ‘Escape the Roar’, were treated to a wholly different rendition of some of their signature tunes. Gyan Singh’s basslines, a heavy dose of electronic embellishment, combined with Jayashree Singh’s vocals, layered at times with a harmonizer, figured prominently throughout their set. A big draw for several Skinny Alley fans is Amyt Datta’s guitar playing, and the audience at the Mad festival weren’t left too disappointed with some great albeit very different sounds coming out of his guitar. We would’ve liked to see some actual harmonies though. Highlights from their set including their opening track, were ‘Woman Who Is Me’ and ‘Used to Be Mine’. Skinny Alley managed to surprise a good portion of the audience, pleasantly and otherwise with their current sound. The visuals in the backdrop, however, at times seemed out of place with the music being played.
The Raghu Dixit Project trundled onto stage and was one of the few bands who had a sizeable audience already gathered during sound check, pushing and shoving for prime place near the barricade. During any of his shows, it’s mandatory to show some love or Raghu makes sure he points you out and jocularly shames you into having some fun. His shouts of “Puma! Too cool to dance?” or “Madam! You can send sms to your boyfriend later” into the crowd did just that. Turns out that heckling the crowd makes them, (even people further back from the stage, far from the singer’s eagle eye) begin bouncing in real or faked enjoyment. Such is this band’s infectious enthusiasm and Raghu’s powers of persuasion. ‘Masti ki Basti’ (particularly loved the flautist’s section on this song) and a brand new Kannada song – the melody to which sounded suspiciously familiar – warmed the crowd up for their last couple of songs ‘Lokada Kalaji’ and ‘Mysore Se Aayi’. Raghu made sure to mention that the band was playing in front of the queen (you know which one!) later this month, which was met with the appropriate amount of cheering and smiles of national pride.
It has to be mentioned that the crew from Cobalt were thorough professionals and utterly immovable when it came to the timing allotted to bands, big or small, after the downpour that affected the scheduling for the day. It’s a testament to their will that they persevered and said no to crazed TRDP fans screaming “One more” repeatedly. Once again, we tip our hats to the people behind the scenes!
And so we move on – with Raghu Dixit’s surprisingly nullified by the distance between the stages, Soulmate came on at the Callaloo stage in their usual sedate, unfussy manner, with Tipriti looking spiffy in a vested shirt ensemble. The air was now carrying a slight nip that made the atmosphere crackle with electricity – mostly static, thanks to the woolens being whipped out. The weather and the general mood would have turned been elevated into a higher experience if the band had decided to play ‘Sier Lapalang’, their usual opening number. But the audience was more than happy to settle for ‘Smile at Me’. Barring the slight over register of guitars that was fixed post haste, the band had a flawless run. Rudy’s slide on the intro to ‘Sunshine’ and his solo later gave the song amazing punch, outdone only by his laidback, easygoing vocals. What was an absolute shocker (that really shouldn’t have really been a shocker considering the talent this band has) was the fact that Tipriti’s voice sounded shot to hell when she spoke into the microphone between songs. But, we’d have betted unrealistic amounts of money that no one could tell from her singing voice that she had any trouble at all. She made it through the entire set like a trooper, hitting those high, loud notes and even maintaining that dreamy guttural quality that is so typically hers now. Soulmate’s lyrics aren’t a complicated battlefield of metaphors and hidden meaning but then that begs the question, why do they seem so gosh darned perfect? Our song pick of the set was definitely ‘Set Me Free’. They’ve got the performance of this song right down to an art form.
At the Blubaloo stage, the lull in the wake of the boisterous Raghu Dixit welcomed The Electric Konark Band, which was quite frankly an unknown quantity for this reviewer. While the band as a whole didn’t strike a bell, the individual members were illustrious enough to generate the right amount of interest in the right amount of people. Their tagline – “Going Electric with integrity” served to remind us of reading about the genuine feeling of regret from fans and some in the musical community of the 60s at the tumultuous switch from acoustic to electric, this while the latter genre was still in its infancy. The band inaugurated the set with a meaty guitar-driven melody (thanks to the immensely talented Konarak Reddy) – notes bent to Indian classical that were merged into a Western scale backdrop. When the tabla and the bass (Rzhude David) came in and sparred through the mid-section of the song, we knew what we were about to experience was one of a kind. The first song ‘Mango Ripples’ was a masterpiece in timing, precision and technicality. Unfortunately, due to the rain-related delays, a visibly (and audibly) peeved Konarak Reddy groused that the band had only five more minutes to play and didn’t waste any more time on talking.
On a side note, while it was apparent that we were in the presence of some seriously talented artists, one wonders how long the attention span of an (and stress on this) average listener would have to be for him to be able to be completely immersed for the duration of a ten-minute, non-vocal song. Some members of the audience were soaking in the music at the very front while others allowed themselves to be distracted by conversation, clearly taking a breather, in the wake of an energetic Raghu Dixit performance. Either way, it was a true pleasure to watch the maestros play off each other and genuinely enjoy their time on stage.
The Kabir Project, an eclectic bunch of musicians that take inspiration from the works of Kabir, was a breath of fresh air. While the crowd watching wasn’t particularly significant in number, those who did stay back to catch this eclectic act who performed after Soulmate were treated to some delightful interpretations of the 15th century poet they take their name and inspiration from. There were some nice harmonies incorporated as well, mixing nicely into the set up they had. Thanks to the rain earlier that day and the subsequent scheduling constraints their set was curtailed into a short, albeit, refreshing one.
The last act of the evening was Indian Ocean on the Blubaloo stage. Despite a reduced set time and a plethora of sound issues including the rain earlier in the day ruining the mixer settings and their sound check, Indian Ocean sounded brilliant on the PA. Their setlist was short, crisp and rather energetic. ‘Bondhu’, from 16/330 Khajoor Road, their last album with late singer, tabla player and percussionist Asheem Chakravarty, a poignant track, drenched with emotion was probably the pick of the night for this writer. Evocative, the track showcased Indian Ocean at their melodic best. ‘Maa Rewa’, ‘Bandhe’ and especially ‘Kandisa’ got the crowd singing along and completely involved with the act, and displayed exactly why Indian Ocean are so revered in the independent music scene in the country. If we had to pick a crib, it would be that the band tends to stick to the staple crowd pleasers at the festivals. All in all, a thoroughly engrossing performance, that highlighted Indian Ocean’s professionalism despite the major glitches with the sound, and one that brought the first day’s action to a rousing close.
The chilly Ooty air did nothing to deter large groups of people from lingering at the lawns near the Blubaloo stage as they soaked in the after-effects of a smashing day filled with too many good acts to pick from. After all manner of cat calls and one liners being screamed into the night (from “We want more!” to “Free smokes!”) in vain, the remnants of the audience began their journey home, leaving the warm glow of Fern Hill Palace to stand guard over a venue that had in its first day been branded indelibly into our memory.
The first edition of The Mad Festival was greatly anticipated mainly because it held the promise of bringing Music, Arts and Dance together – each one being a form of expression where the difference lies only in the medium through which ideas, thoughts and feelings are conveyed. A closer look at the festival details revealed that they had an amazing line-up with some of the most accomplished musicians and dancers. The location seemed to be the cherry on top of the cake – Ooty was the perfect destination to head to, to enjoy three days of unadulterated bliss. There was no way we would miss this one.
The journey began with high expectations, mixed with a lot of apprehension because it is a known fact that organizing events of this magnitude with performances by 48 artistes over a span of 3 days is no ordinary task and since this was the first edition of The Mad Festival, we hoped that everything would run smoothly without any glitches. Strategically placed signboards on the streets leading to Fern Hills ensured that no one had trouble finding the venue. A massive doorway at the entrance announced the name of the festival in bold letters. The setting for the festival was provided by sky-high trees, lovely hills outlining the venue and step farms, lush green with tea plantations. The sheer beauty of the place, and the lovely weather made the venue seem like any art lover’s paradise!
The security at the entrance stripped people off all their eatables, unsealed cigarette packs, lighters and water bottles after a thorough inspection of bags and sent the articles collected straight to the dustbin, with no provisions for collecting them after the festival. However, this was forgiven and forgotten as soon as one got past the gates and beheld the massive stage setup. The two stages at the venue called ‘Blubaloo’ and ‘Callaloo’ (which apparently don’t mean anything, in case you were wondering if they had any tribal significance) were set up at different locations and were well-separated from each other by the Mad Bazaar, such that walking over from one stage to another wasn’t much of a chore and the music from the two stages hardly interfered with each other. Two massive boards at each stage announced the line-up for the festival, which was a delectable mixture of different genres featuring artistes spanning various countries and origins.
The turnout at the festival was surprisingly low, especially on the first day. Two food stalls and the limited number of tents at the sparsely populated venue made it seem like a large crowd wasn’t expected. However, more people turned up on the second day and the third, making the place a lot livelier. Each day’s proceedings began with an invocation on both stages by the local tribes – Todas, Kotas, Irula, Kattunayakans, Paniyars and Kurumba. On day one, the first few bands played to a sparse audience. However, towards the latter part of the day, a satisfactory number had gathered around both stages to relish the variety of tunes being belted out, scuttling from one stage to another from time to time, not wanting to miss out on too much of anything. The performances on the two stages were well-spaced, giving the audience the opportunity of catching a bit of everything!
The pathway from the ‘Blubaloo’ stage to the ‘Callaloo’ stage was lined by the Mad Bazaar with lovely little stalls that sold everything from soft toys, flamboyant cowboy hats, shimmering bows, feathered stoles, fancy hairbands and tiaras, books with original 3D comic art, hats with oversized bows, unconventional musical instruments to a variety of other trinkets. Cupcakes of different varieties were hugely popular and consumed in large numbers. Curiously, there was very little variety across the food stalls at both stages, which got boring towards the end of three days and also quite heavy on the pocket! The ‘Blubaloo’ stage was also lined by the Paintball Zone that had a foosball table, darts and other fun games to indulge in!
Not surprisingly, The Bar always seemed to have a sizeable crowd with people gathered around, beers in hand, making their own music by beating on cartons that doubled up as percussion instruments and belting out their own tribal calls at the top of their voices. Mild flirting, animated conversations, socializing and bonding over alcohol and shared cigarettes contributed to most of the buzz while the rest of the buzz came in from the stalls comprising the Mad Bazaar.
Sadly, the stalls were the only things that contributed to the “Art” in the festival. The space available around both stages could have been put to better use to display art more extensively. Three days into the festival, we realized that it was more about Music than Arts and Dance, with the latter two thrown in seemingly just to fit the bill to qualify as a festival that promotes all art forms. Hopefully, the second edition of The Mad Festival will have more to offer on that front!
In addition to listening and watching the bands and artistes perform on stage, the attendees could also interact with them at the various workshops conducted at the festival such as the ‘Depth of Expression’ workshop by Susmit Sen and the ‘Chaos Theory’ workshop by State of Bengal. There were also several theatre, photography and Yoga workshops that people could enroll for.
The camping place with over 160 tents was quite a walk from the stage (for those who weren’t smart enough to figure out a shortcut!) and was probably the best place to hang out after the day’s proceedings. Bonfires were lit, guitars were wielded and popular tunes were played that everyone sang to. The chilly breeze and drunken conversations over the crackling of a fire with the soft strumming of a guitar or two in the background brought each eventful day to a close. However, when it was time to retire to the cramped tents, the hard floor and the not-so-warm sleeping bags, one would think enviously of all the people in the palace with a soft bed for comfort. A couple of foreigners were spotted complaining that the ticket said “basic power supply” but there was none provided at the camping site. People had to run to the Dell stall next to the ‘Blubaloo’ stage or the palace to charge their phones, which was quite an inconvenience. The portable toilets were many in number although a few of them were quite unclean. This left people with the only option – of running to the palace located 1 km away from the camping site (unless they knew the shortcut!)
Days two and three definitely seemed to gain a lot of momentum with a lot more people joining in and enjoying the music, sprawled on the lawns, hanging on to the barricades or just dancing to the tunes at a distance. Some even found a vantage point overlooking the hills and step farms, relishing the music while enjoying the sights and sounds. One thing a lot of artistes complimented the organizers on was the sound. There were almost no problems with respect to sound save for some feedback and volume issues here and there. The sound was pristine, with the sound engineers doing an impeccable job, except for the low volume levels for the Concordia Choir and some feedback during Slain’s performance.
The bands and artistes at The Mad Festival covered the whole gamut of genres and sounds. It is rare to come by a festival where you get to see a heavy metal band like Kryptos play alongside a folk rock fusion act like Swarathma or a World music band like Moon Arra. There was clearly an effort made to showcase ethnic music from all over the country. Artistes like The Kabir Project (Sufi, Folk) singing the mysticism of the poet Kabir, Manganiars playing Rajasthani folk music and Vayali folklore group from Kerala portrayed the musical roots of India, while international bands like The Krar Collective from Ethiopia and Kutumba from Nepal had the audience spellbound with their local ethnic music. Fusion acts like Yodhakaa (Sanskrit-based contemporary Indian music), Agam (Carnatic Rock), The Raghu Dixit Project, Indian Ocean and Papon & The East India Company bridged the musical gap between the traditional and the modern sounds, whereas, contemporary rock bands like Motherjane, Slain, Live Banned, Thermal and a Quarter and Avial had the young crowd rocking out. The Shillong bands Soulmate (Blues) and Afflatus (Rock) were particularly impressive with their onstage intensity and sheer incredible musicianship. The Electronic Music fans had something to groove to with bands like State of Bengal, Schizophonic and God’s Robots providing pulsating beats. With such a diversity of music on display at The Mad Festival, there was hardly a soul around who wasn’t caught up with the music of their liking.
Overall, The Mad Festival proved to be a wonderfully executed event that brought together several artistes and fans from different parts of the world and gave them a chance to interact closely and become acquainted with each other. There were incessant compliments for the organizers by artistes and fans alike for having arranged something like this in the first place, in such a beautiful location, and pulling it off in such a short time frame and the vote in this regard, was unanimous. One of the endearing, and overlooked, details of The Mad Festival was that no band was billed as the headlining act with other bands opening for it. All bands, local and international, were given equal opportunity and a level platform to showcase their art. With the festival featuring 48 bands, stretching over three days, on-site accommodation in tents and camps, the air sizzling with carnival atmosphere, The Mad Festival surely has the potential to be India’s equivalent of international festivals like the Glastonbury Festival.
If the bands that played this gig weren’t as professional as they are, it would’ve been a horrific night for the organizers and attendees alike. But I suppose it is gigs like these that actually prove a band’s strength as performers. Having arrived at the venue around 10:00 p.m. for a 9 o’ clock show, I was pretty sure I’d missed at least one set.
On entering the venue I realized that Thermal and a Quarter were in the middle of their sound check. Partly relieved and party confused, I wondered why the sound check dragged on this long. Standing at the right side-fill speaker and hearing it boom and crackle, realization dawned on me. It didn’t take an audiophile to figure out that the sound at the venue was at par with a B-grade engineering college festival. Yet, sound check was somehow wrapped up by 10:15.
At about 10:45, Menwhopause went on. Right from the go, there seemed to be something wrong with the sound. The main guitar amp was being moody. Towards the end of the song, the amp died completely. After a few minutes of tinkering to no avail, the band called for the sound guy, only to be informed that there was nobody at the console. Patience running out, and tempers mounting, the organizers were at a loss – so much so that an associate of the organizers almost got into a tussle with one of the members of the audience who was shoved unapologetically by said organizer while he tried to make his way to the stage. Professional indeed! After all the drama, the amp decided to come back to life. But not even a minute into the second song, the amp died again.
Menwhopause seemed furious and stormed off the stage and started packing up. A small chat with the lead vocalist revealed more about the organizers’ disorganization and mismanagement. The band’s tech rider had unequivocally requested for two amps, but saw only one available at the venue. After Menwhopause cleared the stage, TAAQ left the green room and proceeded towards the stage when they were informed en route about the wayward amp. They cast quizzical looks about, but set up anyway. It almost seemed like another sound check, with their levels all over the place and the band having to direct the sound guy all over again. While the bass amp was having its own issues, the guitar amp refused to budge. In true Indian fashion, Bruce, vocalist and guitarist, punched the amp in one last attempt and voila – it worked and showing no signs of dying thereafter! We were going to have a show after all!
Thermal and a Quarter played quite a few new tracks, and despite the horrendous sound arrangements, they pulled off one of the best sets I’ve witnessed. They started off with the mid-paced ‘Dangerous‘. With intricate chord structures and progressions, it seemed like a song straight out of Jupiter Cafe, their second studio album. By the end of the song, the crowd that seemed to have disappeared came rushing back. The band had captured the audience’s attention and it was only going to get better. They then went on to play another song called ‘Mighty Strange’, based on Bangalore.
They raised the tempo with ‘Galaktiqua‘ (off their third album, Plan B), a fast paced song about consumerism. The strength of the band, I felt, lies in how much effort goes into making their live set sound just like it is on their album, though a little chat with the band post-gig revealed that it’s the other way around. By the end of the song, the crowd was in a daze, having forgotten all about the fiasco that had preceded TAAQ’s set. The band moved into their rendition of Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom‘, which could’ve easily been an original by the band. TAAQ has a history of “TAAQ-ifying” any covers they do and this was no different.
They ended the set with yet another new song about the auto drivers of Bangalore, ‘Meter Mele One and a Half.’ With an enchanted crowd screaming for an encore, the band played their most famous song, ‘Paper Puli‘. TAAQ had won the crowd over, and it was time for Motherjane to take the stage.
Motherjane was clearly the crowd favourite that night; the audience was already cheering wildly for the band as they made their way to the stage. And it was sound check all over again! They opened the set with ‘Disillusioned‘, segueing almost immediately into ‘Fields of Sound’, which is probably the most progressive-sounding song in their catalogue. The crowd was screaming their lungs out as they moved onto ‘Chasing the Sun‘, their last song for the day. It was hard to tell whether the crowd was pausing for breath at all, as the band moved into encore with ‘Mindstreet‘.
It would be unfair to really talk about how each band sounded, because anyone who’s heard all three bands before would know that, the issue, though I hate to bring it up again, was the sound. It was uneven, unbalanced and shrill. If the speakers that feed the audience crackle, one cannot expect them to enjoy the music. Despite that, TAAQ and Motherjane left the crowd in an excellent mood, as opposed to the haunting gloom during the guitar amp saga. It was extremely unfortunate that Menwhopause got a raw deal at the gig. They probably spent the largest portion of stage time setting up and fixing the amp and they didn’t even get to play. I only wish they had tried hitting the amp at least once before leaving.