For the times they are a-changin’
Since the first time Pepsi Battle of the Bands was resurrected (2017), a significant format change was made this year. Instead of selecting eight bands from the first two audition episodes – that previously marked the start of the music series – twelve bands were selected in 2019 for stage one. Ultimately though, eight bands were retained before the series moved to its next stage.
Two bands would then play against each other, out of which one would emerge victorious and move on to the next stage. As Meesha Shafi said, pitting bands against one-on-one was something they had never done before.
For example, E Sharp competed with Skhehlaj; Neon battled with Mousiqa in episode three with E Sharp and Neon moving to the next stage. Similarly, Auj’s performance of ‘O Jaana’ ensured that they would beat Jhoot who performed an original song in episode four but lost to the former.
This made it easier to look for that elusive act that could steal our hearts the way Mekaal Hasan Band, Aaroh, EP, Messiah and Mizmaar did (all contestants of the much-revered first season of the music series) decades ago. Or the way Kashmir, Xarb and the newly crowned Auj have done since 2017.
Another major change in 2019 was the presence of music group Strings in a stronger capacity as ‘program judges’. Strings replaced Farooq Ahmed of Aaroh (who held the position of ‘audition judge’ in the first two episodes of season two and three, respectively) and joined Meesha Shafi and Fawad Khan in audition episodes as well.
In terms of judging, if Bilal Maqsood was to be the toughest critic on the panel, Faisal Kapadia was his antithesis, providing a balance that can only be expected from Strings.
Meesha Shafi, a part of the program since its comeback, like always gave constructive criticism to the bands, as Aarish acknowledged in the grand finale episode.
As for Fawad Khan, he seems to have left his movie star avatar behind when it came to judging bands and, throughout the season, he seemed closer to the rock musician from the early days of EP.
All that said, one felt the panel needed gender diversity because this is 2019 and not the 2000s. Names like Haniya Aslam (her skills are far too many) and Meesha Shafi can somewhat balance the existence of the boys on the panel and it would have made the overall show stronger. It would also give the jury a person who could pick up on technical things very few are qualified to notice. Other choices existed, such as Hadiqa Kiani, Zeb Bangash – who has graduated from singing to composing – and Madame Humera Channa, Naseebo Lal but Haniya Aslam has earned it more than anyone else by possessing various skills; she is a songwriter, guitarist, sound designer, producer and more. She would have made a very credible choice.
Co-hosts Ali Safina and Hina Altaf, both new to the series, also provided a balance and where their sometimes (over-the-top) enthusiasm for every band was a requirement of their job, they didn’t come off as utter annoyances like Ayesha Omar, Vasay Chaudhry, and Ahmed Ali Butt from previous years.
Over to the contenders.
The one contention that still exists is that Aarish did not belong in the top two; E Sharp did. Their songs were better than Aarish as were their performances. How the decision to drop them in place of Aarish was made – only the judges can understand.
Another problem is that we have yet to see full-length albums come from winners – a Pepsi promise to the victorious.
Kashmir, for instance is re-releasing its album because their songs appeared and disappeared from the Pepsi BOTB website when they first won and instead of a full-length album, it was a four-song EP. The original launch was also nothing to write home about. This needs to change so bands begin to start trusting a corporate-funded music series.
Mentors Asad Ahmed, Imran Akhound and Shahi Hasan, with the latter also being producer of the show (except for certain performances) need to up the ante. A much more interesting example is Nescafe Basement 5 that has more than redeemed earlier mistakes with its last season. Whether that happens in the form of honing talent further by spending more time with the bands or the selection of edgier bands from get-go is on them.
Director Tamer Ipek, DOP Nick Collier and Alex Passmore and Jack Linnekar (lighting) did a good job and their work did not look like other music shows. Their only mistake was the video for Fawad Khan’s ‘Uth Jaag’, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Abdullah Siddiqui’s Nescafe Basement 5 performance of ‘Resistance’.
It’s a Grand Night for Singing
In the grand finale, it felt like almost everybody performed but the only performances that still feels alive belong to, in this order, Meesha Shafi, Fawad Khan and Strings. It was Auj’s night because just on the basis of ‘Lafz’ and ‘Raat’ as well as their personal stories, they earned the winning title fair and square. Abdur Rehman Sajid, the young vocalist of the band, had the confidence of the judges even when he had little confidence in his own abilities but it seems Pakistan warmed up to him as much as the judges. Both Auj and Aarish performed but while Auj knocked a punch with a song called ‘Aansu’ (and earned a standing ovation from all four judges), Aarish was sadly lackluster.
Bayaan and Kashmir’s joint performance was a mixed bag because Bayaan doesn’t come close to Kashmir and it showed. Shahi Hasan’s collaborative performance featuring the other two mentors, Asad Ahmed and Imran Akhound with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammed, was another mixed show. While Fareed Ayaz were brilliant, as always, the addition of Maria Unera rapping in English ruined what was sonically a fascinating achievement.
The Big Three
Strings, Pakistan’s longest running music group, after bringing the anthemic ‘Chal Para’ in episode three, debuted a new song called ‘Hum Aaye’. Speaking to Instep about the rock ‘n’ roll performance, Bilal Maqsood noted, “This song is for concerts and for the audience. It goes like ‘Sunlo yeh Pukaar/Hum Aaye/Dekho Beshumar/ Hum Aaye/Banney Yaad Gaar Hum Aaye’. What it means is that now that we’re here, we’ll do something spectacular and memorable. We plan to have this song as our concert opener.”
Bilal further explained that the idea was not to try and surpass the other judges or performers. “There is no such feeling of competition. We are a rock band and our image is that we want to keep things very subtle. We don’t go over-the-top. People do it as it suits them but it won’t suit us.”
For Strings fans, the song is a banger, with the richness of an old school, classic rock band vibe.
Moving onto Fawad Khan, after last year’s disastrous run, he more than redeemed himself with ‘Uth Jaag’ that, in some ways, is closer to his EP ethos and in some ways, a showcase of the evolution in music itself that is not just about distorted guitars anymore.
A collaborative effort, the song is sonically fantastic and has various musical elements that fascinate and remind you of what could’ve been had EP stayed together or what could happen if Fawad Khan pursues music seriously. There are artists who pursue acting and music, like half the mainstream music industry. Doing both is possible. With a killer performance, Fawad Khan could begin his journey, again.
Speaking to Instep, Fawad Khan noted, “We’ve been putting out a song every season and we did the same with this one as well. Just got up one day and felt like doing it. How consistent I am at it I can’t say. It was a collaborative effort in completing a composition that had been lying in a pile of unfinished compositions. Detailed credits include vocals by Fawad, lyrics (with Xulfi), collaborating on electronic arrangement (with Abdullah Siddiqui), co-writing and co-composing (with Xulfi), with Sherry Khattak as associate music producer and Xulfi as music producer.”
Moving onto Meesha Shafi, after last year’s breakthrough ‘Mein’, you had to wonder if Meesha Shafi could manage another spectacular performance. In ‘Leela’, co-written with Sherry Khattak, however, she managed to do so.
Speaking about ‘Leela’, her elevating and brave performance, Meesha Shafi told Instep, “The song is a conversation between a girl and the moon. Almost with the nativity of a child, she asks the moon some very large, vast questions. And because children are not yet bound by limited beliefs that constrict adults, she actually hears the moon answer.”
Verdict: Given the performances handled by Xulfi this year alone, Pepsi Battle of the Bands should go to him as producer. His experience of finding talent has been proven by Nescafe Basement, which by the way, should move on and go to people like Zain Ahsan or Jamal Rahman, both of whom have accomplished a great deal as producers, respectively. If Pepsi hopes to get better each year, these are some observations to think on.