x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 August 2017

A DIY spirit: five new Indian albums that were made at home

An exciting new Desi aesthetic is emerging in the world of music. We review five Indian releases that were made in home studios.

brnsctr's ARTLESS.
brnsctr's ARTLESS.

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-and-coming 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 Bitmap. 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.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.