Princess This, is beautifully coherent
Bengaluru artist Biswas’ new album is a melody of extremes
There are few things in the world I hate as much as the word “content”, at least in the neo-liberal, “creative industries” sense of the term.
In two simple syllables, the word encapsulates everything that is wrong with the colonisation of culture by the language and logic of the free market.
The content paradigm has had damning effects in many cultural arenas – journalism, political discourse, even advertising. But the worst effect of the rise of content – as I was reminded by the term’s omnipresence at a recent music industry conference in Mumbai – is visible in the world of art and popular music.
The increasingly widespread conflation of art with content represents the growing dominance of a jaundiced, impoverished world view that boils culture down to purely economic value.
Art is an exploration of the human condition. Content is something that fills an empty container. Art prods, pushes or lures us into examining and engaging with the meaning of life, in all its absurdity, tragedy and blissful profundity.
Content doesn’t care if you’re the new Vivaldi or a purveyor of cat whiskers, as long as what you produce can be used to sell ads, or is one.
Art is what makes Princess This by Bengaluru producer Disco Puppet one of the best – and most important – records to come out of the Indian music scene. Content is what will ensure that it will never receive the publicity, appreciation and audience it so richly deserves.
Disco Puppet is the moniker of Shoumik Biswas, a graphic designer, documentary filmmaker and musician who first came to my attention in 2012 as the drummer/vocalist for erstwhile Bengaluru post-rock act Space Behind The Yellow Room.
Even at the time, Biswas struck me as something special. While the rest of his peers in the wave of post-rock acts flooding out of the city at the time produced music that was intricate, technically masterful and soulless, Biswas and his bandmates were putting out tracks that were raw, dripping with vitality and unmistakable punk rock energy.
A couple of years later, he started dabbling in electronica as Disco Puppet. His first release, Astronot, was a rough-around-the-edges proof of concept that laid down the basics of his new sound – genre-bending experimentation, live drums and a deconstructionist approach to songwriting.
He’s spent the time since refining and building on that aesthetic, releasing in 2016 the critically acclaimed EP Spring via cutting edge Bengaluru music collective/label Consolidate.
Earlier this year, he followed it up with I’m Going Home, a slightly disjointed collection of tracks largely written in one night as an attempt to break through a serious case of writer’s block. But it’s on the 11-track Princess This, released earlier this month with little hype or fanfare, that Biswas unleashes his final form, showcasing his unique ability to take disparate, even contradictory, musical ideas and turn them into beautifully emotive and coherent songs.
The music of Princess This is a study in extremes, with Biswas cranking up his predilection for blurring boundaries between genres and sounds up to 11. He pillages and loots his way across the contemporary music landscape, picking up musical odds and ends with all the discrimination of a magpie.
Harsh, abrasive sonic textures and apocalyptic lo-fi percussion rub shoulders with twee xylophone melodies and shimmering pop synths. Found sound samples, faux-Sanxian strings and alt-rock drumming all vie for your attention, often at the same time. And floating above it all is Biswas’s voice, so heavily autotuned at times that it obscures the line between human and machine, setting up a permanent home in the uncanny valley.
The pitch-correction software is much derided by purists who see it as a way to paper over vocal inadequacies. But Biswas deploys autotune much like Kraftwerk approached the vocoder, fully embracing its weirder, more over-the-top possibilities. With a less accomplished producer at the helm, such a sonic melange would be all but guaranteed to collapse into an unlistenable mishmash. But Biswas doesn’t just manage to make it all work, he does it almost effortlessly. The opener to Princess This, Hhhh (Intro), is a perfect example, built around a series of autotuned vocal trills while other sonic elements jump in and out at will – a mid-tempo kick drum, swelling oriental strings and grimy, distorted percussion all make short appearances. This really shouldn’t work. But it does.
The heavily distorted drums that bookend Doass sound like a miniature, localised apocalypse – you can almost feel the sound disintegrating in front of you – while the middle of the song is given over to a grimy bassline, shiny pop synth melodies and Biswas’s electronically assisted croon.
At one point a robotic female voice repeatedly intones “I don’t care anymore”, its lack of emotion a metaphor for the existential ennui that suffuses much of this record.
At 25, Biswas is feeling the first inklings of age and mortality – and the realisation of how easy it is to waste the years that we have, frittering away our potential. The same feelings resurface on Late Carnivore, with its handclaps, woozy bass lines and metronomic high hats that sound like a mix between a gas leak and ants marching across an aluminium sink.
Biswas channels A Perfect Circle-era Maynard James Keenan as he sings “I’m complacent, I’m complacent”, the phrase signifying self-realisation and self-flagellation.
Special mention must be given to Consolidate label-mate Pardafash’s brief vocal cameo, a vocal melody that is strangely reminiscent of an Ashar Farooqui vocal line from an IJA song, complete with don’t-give-a-damn swagger.
Late Carnivore is also one of a number of songs that deals with the other major theme on the record – that of heartbreak and separation anxiety. Biswas spent a year in Delhi before moving back to Bengaluru, and that’s at the heart of the oppressive sense of distance and separation from both friends and loved one that you hear on songs like the fairly straightforward (at least for Biswas) break-up song Lie Alone, which sounds like something Drake might come up with during a bad psychedelic comedown.
When You Listen is a harrowing document of a love long past its sell-by date, and all the anger and self-recrimination that comes with trying to keep a doomed relationship afloat.
Biswas keeps the music simple, letting his words do the heavy lifting. When he punctuates the repeated refrain of “In the right corner” with “I’m always wrong”, it feels like someone sucker-punched you in the heart.
Another album highlight is Noooo, which kicks off with a single drone, soon to be joined by heavy artillery drumming. Other instruments and samples shuffle in and out as the song proceeds – insectile clicking noises, maracas, twanging synth notes. But what gives the track so much affective power is the auto-tuned chorus-shriek of “Noooo!”, Biswas stretching and elongating the cry until it sounds almost entirely inhuman, like the electronically generated lament of a sentient AI.
There’s something about that unnatural sound that seeps into your bones, sending chills up your spines, the techno-musical equivalent of hearing a goat’s childlike cry as it is pushed and pulled to the slaughter.
Elsewhere, the instrumental track Cheese Chase uses the tried-and-tested trick of marrying retro-Bollywood synths to instrumental hip-hop, but it’s a trap. Biswas lures you in with familiar nostalgia before taking a sharp left turn into darker, more dissonant sonic territory populated by slabs of electronic noise and the long, degenerative tail of sonic decay.
There are few weak moments on this record. The bonus track – a cover of a song by Kolkata art-rockers Pink Noise – is fun but feels like filler, and there are a few points where Biswas lets his ambition get ahead of his ability. But to focus on the few missteps in such a successfully experimental record would be a bit mean-spirited. On Princess This, Disco Puppet cements his place as one of the most innovative and experimental producers in Indian electronica.
More importantly, he’s made a record that captures and tenderly dissects some of the emotional turmoil that is at the heart of being human. Content might rule the charts and industry bottom-lines, but that is something that only real art can successfully accomplish.