Between the full-scale orchestra, the homage to a legendary stage musical, the accompanying short film, and the artiste contributing everything from sheet music to album artwork, Usman Riaz’s Circus in the Sky can’t help but come across as indulgent. A 20-year-old provided with seemingly unlimited resources to explore his every musical whim. It would have a kid-in-a-candy-store quality to it, were it not for a simple fact.
Usman Riaz is an immensely talented musician.
EMI’s willingness to indulge the artist is a calculation that if given the space to explore and experiment, Riaz would use the tools to innovate, expanding not only the repertoire of his own nascent career, but in doing so expand the horizons of music in Pakistan as well.
Far from complacent, the soft-spoken Riaz’s voice takes on a sense of wonder and disbelief at the opportunities and the resources provided to him. The results of this gratitude and zeal are apparent throughout Circus in the Sky.
Riaz’s ambition can be discerned through a number of instances throughout the songs, not least of them being the fact that Circus in the Sky is a concept album. The album tells the tale of a journey as different songs borrow elements from one another, sequenced at times into seamless progressions. In more than one instance, multiple tracks are actually different movements of a single song.
The production quality is a striking feature, capturing the nuances of the Usman Riaz sound while avoiding the trap of over overproduction that plagues both debut artistes in general and Pakistani musicians in particular. This attribute is all the more impressive considering the sheer volume of instruments and sounds on the album. Production is yet another aspect of this album Riaz is prominent in, collaborating with Karachi’s Kashan Admani.
We open with Adventures of the Lost Boy, a number that is at once whimsical and boastful. The song is an Usman Riaz composition featuring London’s James Vaughan Orchestra.
On Shimmer, we find Riaz toying with the limits of his more recent obsessions, the guitar. Expanding upon the work of his EP, Flashes and Sparks, he channels percussive sound from what most musicians would limit themselves to using as a string instrument. Also, he goes beyond the customary methods of playing the guitar by frequently playing along the fret board, tapping the strings there as opposed to strumming or picking along the instrument’s body.
Despite these deviations from standard musical practices — which also include the lyric-less use of the human voice — Sparks is a song that comes across as effortless and most certainly cohesive.
With its improvised percussion, clicking noises and short length, the next track, What’s All This, is simply a preamble to the song that follows. The next song is an ambitious and painstaking labour of love paying tribute to Stomp, the artiste’s favourite stage production.
What’s All This segues seamlessly into Ruckus, which is at first unassuming before taking on a boisterous persona, with Riaz’s bluesy harmonica wailing over the aural ingenuity of extemporised instruments. There is a short film accompanying the track, directed by Usman Riaz, another feature in the diverse range of aspirations pursued by the man.
Clouds Before the Storm is up next, guitars and piano making their entrance with a sense of urgency, like something out of a chase sequence.
In fact, the entire album seems like it would fit perfectly as the score to a film. Usman Riaz’s composition has a quality resembling the work of Hans Zimmer; elaborate without being pretentious, diverse yet consistent.
Flashes and Sparks is the first song with any lyrics at all, the music follows the theme of the song preceding it, albeit toned down at points, with Riaz’s own vocals playing a supportive role.
The Waves and Descent to the Ocean Floor showcase the musician’s talent as a pianist with both songs pared down from the cacophony of the ones preceding it. Wistful at times, the piano takes center stage.
The way Clouds Reprise picks up abruptly after those two songs is a testament to the impetuousness of a young artiste, as if the minimalism of the preceding tracks held back a reservoir of grander sounds.
As the name implies, Saeen has the most distinct Eastern flavour, once again a song that would not be out of place in a movie score. The listener can tell by now that Usman Riaz is as adept at using instruments indigenous to this region as he is scoring for a London orchestra.
The album ends on a melancholy note with Fragaria Dreams, a perfect end to the grand production that is the fittingly titled Circus in the Sky.
Usman Riaz’s debut effort goes a long way in presenting not only his talents but also the immense potential he has before him. With a record deal under his belt, and plans to begin studies at Berklee School of Music, there is a great deal of optimism for the trajectory his musical career might take.
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