The persisting arguments about the drought of original content and the absence of full-length albums in the music scene can and should be put to rest. If the last few years have taught us anything, a statistical reality if you will, its that independent artists across the country have taken the mantle that once belonged to mainstream acts and are producing musical content that is breaking new ground. The result of the emergence of this curious kind of aesthetic in music has given birth to an enveloping sonic catharsis whose importance should not be diminished.
A case in point is Karachi-based music group, ESharp, who have staged a glorious return with their second studio album, 600 Saal.
All those who have been yearning for a sizzling album have to look no further than this group because 600 Saal is colorful, lively and full of elating funk-laden rock melodies. Most of all, it is yet another sign that great music is consistently being produced right here at home and all we have to do as listeners is give it a chance.
The musical landscape
ESharp, which counts Ahmed Zawar, Anwaar Ahmed and Qumber Kazmi as its members, has managed to surpass the standard they set with their debut album, Bahadur Yaar Jang that released in 2015.
With 11 songs, 600 Saal is a comprehensive and compelling production and submerged in rock ‘n’ roll revelry. But the careful and deliberate variations found on each song also mean that no two songs sound the same.
Speaking to Instep, front-man Zawar explained that like its predecessor, the sophomore effort from the group also has a conceptual backstory.
Explaining the narrative that is backing this album, Zawar told Instep: “In the year 1417, Mehtab, the singer at the Royal Darbar is sentenced to death for pursuing a love affair with Princess Shabana. While the Princess commits suicide fearing the inevitable, Mehtab manages to escape the prison the night before his execution with the help of a mystical old man named Allah Inayat. The old man claiming to know the unspoken secrets of the universe tells Mehtab that lovers who are separated by tragic death are bound to meet again after every 600 years. He offers him a potion, drinking which will make a person sleep through centuries without aging. Mehtab agrees to travel through time to find his lost love.
He wakes up in 2017 in the city of Karachi with the only goal of finding Shabana and is accompanied by his two friends from the 15th century. Unable to understand the changes and complexities brought by 600 years, they can’t do much to find Shabana.
When all fails, Mehtab and his friends are reminded that while everything has changed, the power of music as a universal language of love remains the same. They realize that they must make music to reach out to Shabana. Thus, they start singing songs and spread their music around. Will the power of music make them succeed in finding true love in this alien world? A love which has survived centuries, a love spanning 600 years….”
Though the story collectively triggers your imagination, it also doesn’t mean that the songs don’t have individual character or that each song is connected to the next and can only be heard in unison.
While the first single released from the album, ‘Superman’, was outrageous and a full-blown party anthem with social connotations, the rest of the ten songs of the album have just as much weight, both overt and subliminal, if not more.
‘Ashraful Makhlooqat’ speaks about the victory of hate, the countless deaths that refuse to move us and the fear with which human beings see each other.
‘Chalti Phirti Sazish’ is about the inability to say things, the impatience within and what is written in the stars.
On the sparse ‘Chor Diya’, Zawar adopts a completely different vocal character and sings about the one who will never come into his world, the many moments of yearning and waiting and being a stranger in familiar spaces. As ballads go, this one is easily one of the best to emerge in recent memory.
‘Gehri Baat’ with its mellow guitar opening and gradual buildup, speaks of destinations forgone and an incomplete heart. The aching guitar riff in the middle is perfectly placed and provides a sharp contrast from the opening.
On ‘Na Pak Zameen’, the everyday monsters who set up new and harrowing examples each day in modern day Pakistan are spoken about while the protagonist sings about how injustice is perpetuated by guardians of justice and elevated to a deranged capacity. It’s a dark, dense interpretation of our violence-fueled narrative and will echo strongly with those who let things go unsaid in the absence of faith in the system.
Taking ownership of the tradition of qawwali that is embedded in the musical heritage of this region, ESharp have produced a qawwali song of their own on this album. Titled ‘Saj Raha Hai’, the song is a shaadi qawwali on which Zawar sings about a bride-to-be in poignant fashion.
‘Yeh Aarzu Hai Dil Mein’ an exodus from predictability, leans toward grunge and is peppered with sparse and contained aural departures.
The single ‘600 Saal’, channeling The Stone Roses momentarily, fills you up with a bright feeling just like how a beautiful sunny morning can lift you up after many days of the bitter cold.
The madness outside, the haphazard quickness of life and the ferocious intensity that drives the city make up the subject of this glorious rock ode where the protagonist is searching for that elusive one.
Despite the strong message(s) hidden in each song, the album does not create a wretched sonic world. The melodies are playful and the songs have a sing-along type of character. Imagine an album whose melodies echo Red Hot Chilli Peppers while the songwriting brings to mind the intimacy of Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and the iconic Beatles.
Though the album is a dabbling in the genres of pop, rock, psychedelia and experimentation, it remains a seismic production.
The complexity of this album is concealed and two-fold. On the surface, these songs sound like modern day rock ‘n’ roll tunes but upon multiple examinations, you realize that it is a meticulous caricature of the world we all inhabit and is entrenched with the message that love is a timeless phenomenon even in the darkest of times.
600 Saal is not just good, its so bloody brilliant that it should make the short-list of mandatory listening. If it doesn’t pick up an Album of the Year nod come next year, it will be a travesty. Just for now though check out this album, it really is one for the history books.
– Album artwork by Zehra Nawab