An In­dian DIY spirit

Bhanuj Kap­pal re­views five In­dian re­leases that were made in home stu­dios

The National - News - The Review - - Music - Bhanuj Kap­pal is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Mum­bai who writes about mu­sic, protest cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

Af­ter a bar­ren sum­mer, it’s sud­denly rain­ing records in the In­dian in­die scene. The past few weeks have seen a flurry of re­leases by both es­tab­lished and up-and­com­ing artists.

Desi bass ex­po­nent Nu­cleya and trap (a type of hip hop) pro­ducer Su Real kicked open the flood­gates with their much writ­ten-about twin al­bum launch and tour. Since then we’ve been treated to re­leases by EDM poster boy Dual­ist In­quiry; fu­ture-smooth-bass pro­ducer San­dunes; alt rock­ers Spud In the Box; Hindi pop-rock act Ankur Te­wari; beat­maker Oceantied; art-rock­ers Barty’s Path; and in­dus­trial pop mer­chants Sun­dog Project. Most of these al­bums have been ex­cel­lent, some not. But the most ex­cit­ing batch of In­dian re­leases, as usual in re­cent years, comes not from the es­tab­lished in­die cir­cuit but from the bed­rooms and home stu­dios of mav­er­icks on its fringes.

The rise of cheap dig­i­tal record­ing tech­nol­ogy in the early 2000s led to a boom in in­de­pen­dently-pro­duced mu­sic all over the world. In In­dia, where al­bums rarely sell and al­most never enough to cover the costs of a pro­fes­sional stu­dio, it was a god­send. By al­low­ing the artist to recre­ate the stu­dio in the bed­room, it led to an ex­po­nen­tial in­crease in the qual­ity and quan­tity of al­bums be­ing pro­duced. More im­por­tantly, it al­lowed mu­si­cians to fol­low their vi­sion un­hin­dered by ei­ther the lim­i­ta­tions of an in­stru­ment or by the need to cater to a com­mer­cially vi­able au­di­ence.

An ex­plo­sion of cre­ativ­ity fol­lowed as a scene ob­sessed with gen­res fi­nally freed it­self from the tyran­nies of form and for­mula. An avant-garde scene de­vel­oped, pro­duc­ers blend­ing gen­res and weird­ing things up to cre­ate cut­ting edge new sounds in their bed­rooms.

The in­ter­net has al­lowed them to con­nect on­line, form­ing small com­mu­ni­ties that revel in the ex­per­i­men­tal, the ob­scure and some­times the stub­bornly in­ac­ces­si­ble. Some of these artists are vet­er­ans from the in­die rock scene, giv­ing free rein to their more mad sci­en­tist ideas. Oth­ers are teenagers or 20-some­things who have grown up with in­stant ac­cess to the most outré mu­sic ever put on record.

What they share in com­mon is their com­mit­ment to pro­duc­ing the most orig­i­nal and in­ven­tive mu­sic they can. Ev­ery year, the most cut­ting edge mu­sic in the coun­try comes from this small, in­ter-con­nected fringe. And this au­tumn’s crop is par­tic­u­larly good.

The grand old man of the avant-in­die scene is icon­o­clas­tic gui­tar mae­stro Amyt Datta. He was play­ing in bands be­fore the cur­rent crop of in­die mu­si­cians was born. He’s a found­ing mem­ber of long-run­ning Kolkata pop-rock pioneers Skinny Al­ley and the more ex­per­i­men­tal-lean­ing Pin­knoise. But on the side he has been qui­etly, with­out fuss, cre­at­ing an en­tirely new lan­guage for the gui­tar. Re­leased this week, his lat­est solo al­bum Amino Acid is mu­sic as “dis­so­nant po­etry”. Cold, an­gu­lar gui­tar lines snake like steel ca­bles over squelchy, fu­tur­is­tic basslines. Shiny pi­ano chords stab out from noth­ing­ness, while sec­tions of free-jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion are punc­tu­ated by blips, squeals and bursts of harsh static. Jazz, in­dus­trial and Car­natic mu­sic all count as in­flu­ences but Datta de­con­structs these old forms and re­ar­ranges the frag­ments into a new sonic ar­chi­tec­ture that is at once cold, bru­tal and breath­tak­ing. This is mu­sic as sci­ence, or maybe surgery, as Datta sculpts sound with a sharp scalpel. What it lacks for warmth, it makes up for in its alien, ab­stract beauty.

Harsh Karangale is an­other, al­beit younger, veteran of the in­die scene. He’s kept a low pro­file as the drum­mer for in­die favourites Sky Rab­bit, but now he’s step­ping out on his own with solo project Bit map. Armed with a drum kit, lap­top and synths, Karangale cre­ates dark, apoc­a­lyp­tic sound­scapes over which he lays down com­plex, propul­sive rhythms. Over his five-track self-ti­tled de­but, Karangale takes the lis­tener on a voy­age through a dystopian dream world full of growl­ing drones, throb­bing basslines and craggy walls of harsh noise. But there are glimpses of melody too, es­pe­cially on the serene but me­lan­cholic closer New Mean­ing. Through­out, Karangale’s dy­namic live per­cus­sion pro­vides a solid rhyth­mic back­bone to the tracks. Bitmap is an ex­cel­lent show­case of Karangale’s avant-in­dus­trial sen­si­bil­i­ties. If I had one com­plaint, it would be that the EP isn’t as far left-field as his live set.

Then there’s Shoumik Biswas, a for­mer post-rock drum­mer turned elec­tron­ica pro­ducer. A mem­ber of Ban­ga­lore col­lec­tive Con­sol­i­date, which has es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion for lo-fi left­field mu­sic, Biswas cre­ates no­to­ri­ously genre-ag­nos­tic mu­sic as Disco Pup­pet. Last month he re­leased his sec­ond EP Spring, a rau­cous mix of 8-bit tones, swelling synths, skit­ter­ing rhythms and rat­tling ma­chin­ery. As some­one who claims to get bored very eas­ily, Biswas has an aver­sion to re­peat­ing pat­terns or mo­tifs for too long. As soon as you think you’ve got a han­dle on a track, it shifts shape into some­thing sim­i­lar but also en­tirely dif­fer­ent. Only min­i­mally de­ployed, Biswas’s wob­bling, off-kil­ter croon­ing adds a warm hu­man touch to oth­er­wise ec­cen­tric and sin­is­ter com­po­si­tions. High­lights in­clude the hor­ror video-game sound­track Se­quen­tial Monophony and the schiz­o­phrenic Ex­per­i­ment #1.

One of the most ex­cit­ing new pro­duc­ers in the coun­try is brn­sctr (pro­nounced “brain­scat­ter”). Hail­ing from Patna, Ab­hi­nav Singh cre­ates beau­ti­fully im­per­fect beat tapes us­ing just his OP-1 sam­pler. While his 2014 de­but King Brain – 20 min­utes long and recorded in one live take – was more like a proof-of-con­cept, last month’s ARTLESS is burst­ing with fas­ci­nat­ing and whim­si­cal mu­si­cal ideas. A lit­tle over 20-min­utes long, this col­lec­tion of mu­si­cal suites ex­pertly blends ex­per­i­men­tal elec­tron­ica, in­stru­men­tal hip-hop and New Age am­bi­ent into a post-in­ter­net desi aes­thetic. Like Mum­bai’s Syn­thetic Ly­ing Ma­chine, he’s one of those rare mu­si­cians who un­der­stands that min­i­mal chill­out mu­sic can still be packed full of sub­tle com­plex­i­ties and rad­i­cal ex­plo­rations. Keep an eye out for the day he puts out a full al­bum.

This last one is me cheat­ing slightly, as Spankeol ac­tu­ally re­leased these two records back-to-back in the sum­mer. But they flew un­der the radar be­fore fi­nally be­ing no­ticed a few weeks ago. Lit­tle is known about the artist other than that it’s some­one from New Delhi named Mounaeir Kiers. But his re­leases – the 7-track I and the 22-minute long track/al­bum II – feature some of the most de­ranged, aber­rant and rad­i­cal mu­sic to ever come out of this coun­try.

The de­but record’s song ti­tles (Farewell to Thee, Now Just Pee, Wake Up, Go & Come Back and Wait Till Morn­ing to Wake Up) point at Spankeol’s debt to punk rock, which is even more ev­i­dent in the com­po­si­tions on dis­play. Free jazz atonal­ity teams up with biz­zarro-punk un­ortho­doxy to cre­ate songs that skirt the thin line be­tween pop mu­sic and sound art. Much of the mu­sic is im­pro­vised. Spankeol plays around with de­tuned acous­tic gui­tars, tor­tured horns, snatches of over­heard con­ver­sa­tion and scratchy drum ma­chines.

The sec­ond record is best imag­ined as the aber­rant sound­track to an art­house hor­ror film. There are more ac­com­plished, more vir­tu­osic, more so­phis­ti­cated artists out there. A cou­ple are on this list. But none can of­fer a sound and an aes­thetic as out there as Spankeol. If bed­room pro­duc­ers are the cut­ting edge of In­dian in­die, Spankeol sits right at the tip of the blade.

Cour­tesy Robert Han­son

From elec­tron­ica to punk rock, New Age am­bi­ent and jazz, artists in home stu­dios across In­dia are pro­duc­ing a new Desi aes­thetic.

From top: brn­sctr’s ARTLESS; Disco Pup­pet’s Spring; Amyt Datta’s Amino Acid; Spankeol’s II; and Harsh Karangale’s Bitmap. Most are self-re­leased, apart from Spring which is on Con­sol­i­date for US$2 (Dh7). The rest are avail­able on a pay what you want...

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