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Spellbound by Midhaven


Nothing comes easy for the average Indian metal band. With new acts evolving practically every alternate day, the base of the heavy metal pyramid has never been this crowded. Rising to the next level is a constant struggle and most bands do not seem to get very far. Indeed, it really isn’t just about “hard work” or “luck”. What is required is that special something, that extra ingredient, to take you to the pinnacle of success. Very few bands have this quality – the majority of them burn out quickly despite their dedication and determination. All the Facebook “likes” in the world make no difference to these acts – if they are destined to be ground to dust, then that is their final outcome.

Mumbai’s progressive sludge metal quartet Midhaven has not found the going easy in their short journey up the scene’s ladder. While many people have praised the band’s efforts on their debut EP Tales From The Tide, there have also been those who have been scathing in their criticism. With the house so divided in their opinion of the band, Midhaven required a herculean effort to shut their critics up and prove to their growing fan-base that they indeed had it in them to rise above the mass of mediocrity.

Spellbound is the product of their labor – a concept album, a tale of power and vengeance that is heavily influenced by Hindu, Greek and Norse mythology, where Lord Shiva and the sun god Apollo are the main protagonists. Very few Indian bands have tried their hands at story-telling via the sounds and rhythms of heavy metal, so is this the “X-factor” that Midhaven hopes will bring them the success that they are looking for? Does a concept album really work for the masses?

A quick spin of their debut full-length effort may actually find you leaning more towards the “ayes” than the “nays”. Spellbound is indeed a compelling listen, and the music does hit you hard. The album consists of nine tracks, and this tale of bombastic godly power opens with the melodic post-rock influenced ‘Lunar Blessing’. A well composed track, but as an album opener it seems a tad clichéd. Nowadays many metal bands have adopted this trend of including similarly sweet, saccharine coated intros as their album openers – and while this popular approach does not seem to dying out very soon, it would do a world of good for these bands to sit down and actually try and justify the inclusion of such tracks.

So to be fair, ‘Lunar Blessing’ probably does add to the plot of Spellbound. Unfortunately how, is not very clear to the average Joe non-proghead listener. And this is a major drawback. Concept albums are tricky. You can either convince the listener to fall hook, line and sinker for your tale – or you can’t. You are expected to view the story through the eyes of the musician and allow him/her to transport you to their world, their storyville. Metal concept albums like Nightfall In Middle-Earth by Blind Guardian or Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche are two gems which have stood the test of time, and the success of these albums owe a lot to the above fact that the respective bands were able to sell their stories to the listener in their entirety.  Unfortunately, if your vision is myopic, then no amount of hand-holding is going to help you appreciate the band’s efforts in story-telling. And then it all comes down to the music – can the music and the originals, as individual components, stand out on their own and help to carry the album through?

Back to the album, things start to become a whole lot clearer musically from the second track ‘Seeking The Divine’. This song opens to a barrage of sound that include some crunching drums and scorching guitar tones that instantly set the album’s mood. The growling and clean vocals are both impressive, and overall this is a track which clearly points to the musical direction that Midhaven is planning to go down.

The title track ‘Spellbound’ is the third original on offer, and this too carries on in the same vein. This is a heavy track and the drumming is relentless. The incorporation of the sludgy riffs is absolutely delightful and so are the various changes in tempo. Spellbound also includes all three tracks from Midhaven’s debut EP Tales From The Tide, and its title track comes next. This newer rendition is, without a doubt, a more wholesome and heavier composition than its previous avatar. But more than the heaviness, it is the clarity of sound and the depth in the music which makes this song a far more superior version of its previous self and the band seems to have obviously learned and grown from their debut effort, which is heartening.

“If all on Olympus deny me my vengeance, then all on Olympus will die” – this is how ‘Ascension’, the fifth track on the album unfolds. And the listener is suddenly jolted back into Midhaven’s world of gods and divine vengeance. The story continues to steadily unfold in the next track ‘Fall Of Olympus’ – a powerful track, probably the heaviest to be featured. The listener gets to hear a lot of styles in this one composition, including a bit of progressive death as well. The menacing growls add a lot of depth to this song, as do the steady drumming.

Tracks seven and eight are again reworked versions from the band’s EP Tales From The Tide – but the listener should have no complaints as these songs, ‘The Third Eye’ and ‘White Wash’, have been highly polished and are as good as brand new. The guitar work on ‘The Third Eye’ is beautiful and you cannot help but get lost in the details that this song seems to project into your mind. The tempo of the album has slowed down considerably by now, and this is reflected in ‘White Wash’. However, the mood of the album is retained, and the soothing guitar solo which brings White Wash to its conclusion is probably one of the highlights of the album.

The final composition of this nine-track album is ‘Death Row’. It is a good song, where the band brings back the heavy quotient into the album. However, it isn’t the most powerful of compositions in the musical sense of the word.

Spellbound is no doubt an interesting listen. The production (under the watchful eyes of Reverrse Polarity member Jordan Veigas)  is definitely above par. Even the album art work (courtesy Aakash Dwivedi) is impressive. Being one of the very few Indian bands to have bagged a contract with Universal Music India, Midhaven has probably not had to deal with the perennial nightmare that is distribution and promotion – allowing them perhaps to concentrate on what they do best. Indeed, Midhaven has  left no stone unturned in their battle to the top. But with so many positives in their favor, why was I left with the feeling that this talented band has failed to play their trump card?

It all boils down to the “story”: this is the crux of the matter as far as Spellbound is concerned. A tale of godly vengeance interspersed and influenced by elements of science-fiction and fantasy, and painted on a canvas of heavy metal would be the stuff of dreams for any prog/sc-fi fanatic, including yours truly. However, try as I might, it was not an easy task to really get into the story nor did I find it any easier trying to understand it from the band’s perspective. So in a nutshell, as ambitious as their efforts might be, Spellbound as a concept album does not work too well. I must say however that mine is no generic view –there are probably many listeners out there who are absolutely thrilled with the plot of Spellbound. And the band would be happy to have fans able to understand the message they are trying to convey.

The music though, is a different topic altogether – for a young band like Midhaven, this debut album displays a sense of maturity and confidence that most bands fail to achieve. And this fact alone makes Midhaven stand out within the sea of metal mediocrity. Even if listeners aren’t necessarily “spellbound” by the concept, the nine featured tracks as individual elements are more than capable of allowing you to sink into the album and enjoy it.

Midhaven is definitely a band to watch out for in the future. They have a lot of things going for them, and that surely gives them an advantage above the rest of the pack. And having the patronage of a major record label is a huge blessing. But maybe, just maybe, they can try weaving tales that are far less confusing and easier to decipher. The reason why Spellbound works is more to do with their music than the story behind the music. So, for their next effort it is hoped that both of the above elements can be seamlessly woven together into a concept album that Midhaven would not only love to tell, but also one that the listener would love to hear.


Bhoomi, Caesar’s Palace and TAAQ at the Bengaluru Habba 2012


First things first – What a venue! The open air amphitheater with the UB City tower looming majestically in the background, and its big bright blue horse logo looking down upon us was quite an amazing sight! And what’s more – for a city perpetually stuck in traffic jams, its habba started dot on time.

The line-up on this particular evening comprised of metal aficionados Bhoomi, the multi-genre, Bangalore based Caesar’s Palace and Bangalore rockers Thermal and a Quarter who made a surprise entry later. All three of them, veterans of the Bangalore rock scene, took to the stage with the promise of a great Saturday evening and they sure lived up to it.

Bhoomi, Caesar's Palace and TAAQ at the Bengaluru Habba 2012

First up was Bhoomi, one of Bangalore’s oldest and best metal acts. They started the evening with their renditions of rock classics like AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, and smoothly drifted into Deep Purple land with Jason Zachariah belting out the keyboard solo to Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ and then Tony Das belting out the guitar solo from ‘Burn’, both playing them absolutely perfectly. Though I’m a fan of bands covering songs their own way rather than playing it exactly like it is, I have to admit that Bhoomi’s version of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ did seem a tad out of place and unnecessarily heavy. Tony Das sang the next song ‘Burn it Down’, a very bluesy number with some great guitar licks. This was followed by another cover, Mr. Big’s ‘Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy’.

They finally went into their originals, starting with ‘Inside Story’, a song about the press today and its obsession with the personal lives and affairs of celebrities. It had some great harmonies between Tony and Jason and ended with a really cool guitar-hero solo from the former. Next they played ‘Uncultured’, a song about riots with some really powerful vocals. It had a great vibe and had me replaying “Come help us fight…War without reason” in my head even after they finished. Their last song was ‘The Game’, a song about playing music live (I loved how Sujay bonded with the audience by explaining each song before playing it. Tony thought the better alternative was to chug some beer before each song. I loved that too!) The final track had a great riff, fierce drumming from Kishan Balaji and very eerie vocal harmonies, a powerful song to end their performance.

The band announced their new album set to release later this year, which is being produced by Neil Kernon, of Queensryche and Nevermore fame. When asked if this is the next big step for Indian bands i.e., to have internationally produced and marketed albums, frontman Sujay replies, “Definitely. It’s already happening. Not only international producers, but there are also many Indian producers with very good technical skills. In a few years, the Indian rock scene will be self-sufficient and we won’t have to look to the west for everything.”

Bhoomi, Caesar's Palace and TAAQ at the Bengaluru Habba 2012

Next up were Caesar’s Palace   a rock/funk/blues/soul/jazz/disco/phew! band from Bangalore. They played a very groovy, almost dance-y set of songs. They started with a cover of RHCP’s ‘Readymade’ and soon went into originals starting with ‘3 hour love affair’. The bassist Kenneth Wilson’s getup with his hood and shades (at 8:00 in the night) looked exponentially less pretentious with each note he played as he got them grooves going. ‘Stare’ had some funny lyrics about the cliche` of thinking deeper. Unni, the frontman then announced that they were going to cover Bappi Lahiri and frankly, I was disappointed to know that it was a joke. This is one band that could actually pull it off! They did come close to it though as they played a very 80s disco style original called ‘Get Your Mojo On’. By this time, Kishan Balaji had begun to look like some medieval war hero (read madman) behind his drums. He and Jason Zachariah had battled and conquered every style from heavy metal to funk and now even disco, both of them having played for both Bhoomi and Caesar’s palace.

They continued their brand of funk with a sense of humour with ‘Wol Chod’, which had some cool slap bass and screeching wah. ‘Dreams’ had a groove that got the entire amphitheater swinging their heads from side to side and had some interesting guitar and bass harmonies. The song ended with a great keyboard solo. They then went into a very well done medley of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ and ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ followed by Tenacious D’s ‘Tribute’ that ended with the outro of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which Unni pulled off perfectly. It was great to see how open minded they are to different genres of music, and not just open minded, but also technically proficient enough to pull off all these varied styles.

Bhoomi, Caesar's Palace and TAAQ at the Bengaluru Habba 2012

The highlight of their performance was ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ by Ray Charles, done in a modern John Mayer style. It ended with a jugalbandi of sorts between the guitar and keys. Jason then played a beautiful piano solo that quietly blended into ‘Swim’, a lovely ballad. They ended with ‘Bittersweet Mind’, a typical 12-bar blues song but with some exciting odd-time signature twists to it.

The night was already going on a high when Unni announced that Thermal and a Quarter was going to take to the stage next and caught everyone by surprise. Thermal and a Quarter or TAAQ , as they are popularly known, consists of Bruce Lee Mani on vocals/guitar, Rajeev Rajagopal on drums and Prakash K.N on bass who happen to be Bangalore’s favourite power trio. This was proven by the fact that despite the fact that it was getting late and terribly cold in the open air amphitheater, the audience didn’t seem to want to be anywhere else.

Bhoomi, Caesar's Palace and TAAQ at the Bengaluru Habba 2012

The trio kick-started their set with ‘Can you fly’, a typical TAAQ song with jazzy guitar playing, great vocals and a powerful rhythm section. Their second song was ‘Meter Mele One and a Half’, about the auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore. As Bruce Lee Mani sang about the woes of the average Bangalorean, I couldn’t help thinking that the band’s music IS indeed the sound of urban Bangalore. They do sound like UB City at night, like the traffic jams, like Masala Dosas, like an auto-rickshaw’s faulty meter, like Cubbon Park, IT parks and all things Bangalorean.

They continued in the same spirit with some “tapang-blues” with ‘If Them’ and ‘For the Cat’ which got few audience members even doing some tapang moves in the front row, as Bruce himself cheered them on! Quite impressive on the part of the dancers I’d say, considering the fact that ‘For the Cat’ had many time meter changes.

Their next song ‘Birthday’  was dedicated to Rajeev’s mother as it was the eve of her birthday. And apparently it’s no ordinary birthday song. As Bruce explained, “It’s about wanting my birthday to be a space and not a time. Very deep…very deep!” This was followed by one of my personal favourites – TAAQ’s rendition of ‘Hey Jude’. It amazed me to see how they could take a classic as popular as ‘Hey Jude’, turn it upside down and change it around completely and still maintain the feel of the original. TAAQ’s version of the song has to be heard to be believed! Their last song ‘Chainese Item’ sounded like the theme song to a spy movie where everyone’s running behind a plate of chow mein, for some reason. Or maybe the ridiculously cold breeze was finally getting to me!

Thermal and a Quarter were undoubtedly the heroes of the evening, captivating the audience with their distinct sound and energetic performance. Overall, a great gig and a perfect Saturday evening, all three bands providing three different versions of that rock and roll sound we all love.

The moral of the story at the Habba’s rock fest seemed to be that rock fests no longer mean copying the west. As the three veterans showed us, rock music in Bangalore today is more about ourselves and all the things that affect us in our lives. It’s more personal and easy to relate to than ever. I think it’s this quality of the music that made it so enjoyable and is making an increasing number of people turn up for concerts like these.

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Abhishek Prakash

Abhishek Prakash is a Bangalore based guitarist and is a third of local act Groove Chutney. He loves jazz, street food, Woody Allen movies and often pretends to be a writer.