SOUNDCHECK: BANDS’ LAST STAND

September 01, 2019

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It’s no secret by now that Auj came out as the winner of this season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands (PBOB). But this episode was more than just about their victory. Every single band that has ever been in the finale of the show, from the very beginning to now, performed or, at the very least, had one of its members perform in this episode.

Not only did you see previous winners grow and evolve both as artists and performers in front of you, but you also saw the judges step up their game on stage. Two of them managed to completely overshadow the rest of the acts, with the previous winners close behind.

Dhaltay Rahay by Kashmir & Bayaan

Asfar Hussain from Bayaan and Bilal Ali from Kashmir
Asfar Hussain from Bayaan and Bilal Ali from Kashmir

Season Two winners Kashmir and Season Three winners Bayaan banded together for this joint performance. This had over 11 people performing on stage together. And they managed to make it work.

For their performance the two bands wrote separate songs which were then stitched together.

“The story behind the lyrics is that it’s about the process of life, which you can’t stop,” says Asfar Hussain, the lead singer of Bayaan.

The finale episode of Pepsi Battle of the Bands Season Four was packed with some very powerful performances. But some really stood out

“The first song which is originally called Din Dhalay is written by Asfar and the second song, which will hopefully be called Saaya once it’s released, was written by me, and was composed by Kashmir,” says Bilal Ali, the lead singer of Kashmir.

It’s interesting to note that, lyrically, both parts of the song are quite similar in their poetry.

Asfar opens the song with:

Chubhti hain pairon mein/ Sheeshay ki kirchiyaan/ Toota tha kya ghar mein/ Kabhi koi aaina/ Paya jo chahat thi/ Kho gaya mein kahan?

[Shards of glass/ Pierce my feet/ Did a mirror break/ In the home?/ I gained my love/ But where did I lose myself?]

In the second half, Bilal from Kashmir starts with:

Pairon talay zameen hil rahi/ Khoj mein apni khoya sabhi/ Waqt ki yeh saazish rahi/ Jeena sakay khul ke kabhi

[Under my feet the earth is shaking/ In search of myself I lost everything/ Time always conspired/ Never to let me live fully]

Joining these two sections together is a guitar solo. The drummers also switch places during this time. There’s a shift in the atmosphere with the mood getting slightly darker. Not surprisingly, considering the bands switch keys for the second part. The song ends with Bilal’s signature pain and angst, which hits you right in the feels. This collaboration has a lot of potential.

Leela by Meesha Shafi

Leela by Meesha Shafi - Photos courtesy: Pepsi Battle of the Bands
Leela by Meesha Shafi - Photos courtesy: Pepsi Battle of the Bands

Following in the ethereal delicate footsteps of last season’s Mein, which saw Meesha Shafi pen perhaps her first original song and come out with what was going to be her own unique defining sound, is her second song, Leela.

Shafi always pays homage to her artistic background through her performance and with Leela she raises the bar for herself even higher.

“Leela is a very old word in Sanskrit,” she says. “It’s a poetic conversation between the girl and the moon. I was hoping that by seeing and listening to this, you will feel like you’ve just had the most beautiful dream.”

Shrouded in shadows in front of a large full moon, her white crown glistening even while her person is concealed in darkness, Meesha appears like an otherworldly creature — the snow queen, Queen Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, or maybe just an extension of the moon that shines behind her.

Any song that starts with the word ‘chanda’ will remind one of a nursery rhyme, but calling Leela that is a great injustice. It’s a song of the night — for adults. Other than the singing, there are little details you notice in the song, like what sounds like ankle bells moving from one direction to the other.

As the song progresses and picks up intensity, so does Meesha’s moonlit character start to bloom. She sings about wanting to ascend above the clouds and Meesha then levitates off the stage, eventually stepping back down gracefully, as if she’s been doing this all her life.

Leela is a complete shift from how things are normally done in Pakistan — it’s not about showing off the singer’s vocal prowess or the musicians’ individual skills. This song, the performance, her singing, the contribution of the musicians and backing vocalists is all about coming together to create that ethereal atmosphere. The end result is breathtakingly beautiful.

Uth Jago by Fawad Khan

Uth Jago by Fawad Khan
Uth Jago by Fawad Khan

When you look at them visually, there seem to be some connections between Meesha’s and Fawad’s performance. While Meesha’s background was dominated by a large, full moon, Fawad’s background had moving constellations. His performance too is similarly atmospheric (though more toned down visually).

Fawad’s ‘Hum’ [Us] which he repeats into the mic at first, however, reminds one of a ‘quiet’ battle cry similar in spirit to the Vikings series soundtrack by Fever Ray, If I had a heart. But only at the beginning. As the beat from the accompanying drums picks up, it sounds like a rallying of the troops.

“We spent some time pondering over this,” says Xulfi who co-wrote and produced the song. “Just like we did during our days in Entity Paradigm. This song is a conversation between ‘man’ and ‘time.’ Fawad is depicting both sides of that conversation in the song.” Some of the lyrics representing time are:

Khabar nahin tujhay, tu hai kahaan / Mera yaqeen to kar, sab hai yahaan

[You don’t know where you are / Believe me, everything is here]

Chorus:

Uth jaag naujawan/ Tera main imtihaan/ Jazba hai agar/ Tera hai phir har jahan

[Rise, wake up, people/ I am your test/ If you have the passion/ Every world is yours]

Uth Jago harkens back to the singer’s days as one of the reigning voices in the Pakistani rock scene. Compare Fawad’s earlier recordings or performances to this one and you’ll notice his voice is noticeably deeper. Gone is the intense head banging from the earlier days. Now, on stage, he seems far more confident and comfortable in his own skin.

The only major downside

Slowly, season by season, Pepsi Battle of the Bands is solidifying its place as one of the premier music programmes in the country. But in one department there is still a desperate need for improvement.

There was a marked difference between how the audio of the judges’ songs sounded vs the rest of the acts that performed that night. The former sounded far superior.

This is a show about music. If you can’t get the audio mixed correctly, it doesn’t matter how good the songs or amazing the performances are, it won’t have the same impact. This is about music — the audio — everything else is secondary.

Take any song from Coke Studio or Nescafe Basement and compare its crisp audio quality to the all-over-the-place one of PBOB — you don’t need to be a music aficionado to note the difference, anybody with functioning ears can observe it.

Four seasons in, PBOB should’ve gotten its act together by now. The format, the bands, the performances are moving the bar higher and higher. Let’s not let that go to waste.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 1st, 2019