Pakistani Rock Comes of Age

By Zia Ahmad

Summer 1995

The world was young, so was I. Still in my teens, my head ran on a brew of boundless enthusiasm and hope for tomorrow. The teenage optimism extended itself to Pakistani pop bands I was listening to back in the day: the MCC (Music Channel Charts) stable bands, Pepsi Top of the Pops confetti we were served week after week, Junoon and Vital Signs defining the musical landscape of Pakistan. Good times. Then again, there was only this much I could take of tuneful melodies and slick pop melodies. The thingness of things felt a tad incomplete. Lucky for me I had already discovered grunge that perfectly filled the void.

With all the “music for the new generation” fracas on TV, on the margins there were other bands that TV had no room for. Most of the bands were in Lahore. These bands played the kind of music that I had started to connect to. Bands that you had to go out on your own to discover: Mind Riot, The Trip, Coven, Midnight Madness and Dog Tag. The subversive energy that was miles away from banal love songs and patriotic ditties came to a full rush at the 1995 Peace Festival organized by one Babar Khan. I missed out on the gig. The festival was a roaring success. I read it in the papers. An indigenous home grown, 90s tainted mini-Woodstock.

In the following years, the legacy of the festival grew in knowing circles and the one band that got the most mileage out of the gig was Coven. Back then hoisting Ali Noor as the frontman, Coven was instrumental in highlighting the Lahori Underground scene. They even made it to the then mighty Pepsi Top of the Pops TV show. In 1998 I got my hands on their Not of This World EP. That small collective of songs proved once and for all that Junoon had absolutely no monopoly over rock music in Pakistan and in fact true and pure rock music with live drums is within the realm of possibility in our country.

Summer 2007

After a considerable hiatus, the band struck back and hyphenates its name essentially turning to Co-ven. It started with a video on TV. Before you knew it there was an album out, audaciously called Volume I & II. Sadly it wasn’t the epic release in the vein of The Wall, Use Your Illusion or Mellon Collie. Rather cheekily, both sides of the album were attributed self contained album like designations.

It just so happens that the album is a consolidation of two separate mini albums, Volume I recorded in 2001 and the follow up in 2004. In the absence of Sikander Mufti, the only other band member other than Hamza Jafri from the original line-up, Salman Albert joins the recording of volume 2 as a session drummer.

The repackaging of two mini-albums as one full length album notwithstanding, the collection of songs assembled on this release, if nothing else, heralds the coming of age of rock music in Pakistan. Blatantly tackling social issues, the music on the album aspires for greater things and sets the record straight within the parameters of rock. At the same time it must be appreciated that the band (Samir Ahmed and Omran Shafique rounding up the line up) balances its social viewpoint with the personal.

Following is a song by song review, albeit a belated one, of the duo album:

Ride on my blind horse down the hill to my land
Clutching on to a fat stick my nails thick and grey

The harrowing imagery launches the album leading to a song that has angular sonic contours and a sense of resignation. Seven Years also defines the sound and organic feel that permeates through the course of the album. The lyrics take a further primal and base tinge,

Seven years since I saw a woman
Seven years since my mother died

Breakaway is a sombre song with a bare bones structure. In a less than subliminal way it seeks to deconstruct the love song template by hinting at the biological consequence of any love song as expressed in the line, “One day you’ll say to me that we’re soon to be three”. To add gravity to this inevitable conclusion, the line is underscored with an ominous riff.

Most of Third World Celebrity whirls and floats like a disorienting Soundgarden song. The lazy vibe that threatens to throw the song off the rails occasionally clears up for brief choruses that seem to reach out for something more cohesive and sentimental.

The signature riff that introduces Sailing Fast is representative of the album and has all the makings of a single. The opening line, “It’s a pleasure to move your mountains by a finger” alludes to the iconic Voodoo Child. The song also underlines the defining motif of rock imagery, that of travelling, sailing. Hamza Jafri aptly carries the tune through various levels and  Sikander Mufti’s ferocious drums towards the end mark Sailing Fast as a wholesome experience.

Forever associated with the wicked lota video, Boundaries Broken provides the album with its second worthy single quality song. From the go it runs on restrained energy that goes round the bend in the midsection to stomp its way to a slow build up that segues to an anticipatory outro leaving the listener wanting for more.

On the surface Precious and Demolition Job seem like chirpy, casual, good times song that appear anomalous to the rest of the body of the album, running the risk of being filler material. Despite the intermittent jaunty pace of the songs, beneath the sunny veneer, the lyric content is considerably dark translating to a bitter indictment of ubiquitous corruption.

Prove It proves to be the epicentre of the album. At display is a taut interplay between disciplined progression and sauntering choruses, meddling with voice manipulation diving off to a tinkling interlude that seems to be entering a Junoonesque synth terrain only to be jolted with a jagged brush of electricity. The sheer sprawl and complexity of the song is reminiscent of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. The schizophrenic structure of the song is ably clamped down by a subdued yet dramatic riff that serves as a motif throughout the fascinating places the song soars through. 

Headless is a brooding beast with alluring demons of its own. The song ambles shiftly at the intro with carefully structured nimble sounds. The wistful tones of guitar give way to menacing forays only to fall back on it. With a hint of resignation Hamza Jafri spews out the last syllable of the word “smoke” that concludes the chorus line. By the end the beast learns to brood loudly. More aggressive sounds take the song to a distortion-laden whirlpool, ending with a whimper.

The closing Guard Up is the kind of song that whispers and wails its way to your head. The song shows heart when it plunges into a swoon confession of unrequited love.

The music on Vol. I & II treads uncharted rockscape in Pakistan and respects the intelligence and better senses of the listener. A song from their follow-up album, Ready to Die was released a couple of months ago and if that is any indicator of the shapes of things to come, Coven appears to go for a more head on, in your face approach in the coming album. Even more encouraging is the sheer continuation of a band that is past commercial concerns and plays for the sake of sheer vibrancy and honesty of rock music itself. Rock has finally come of age.

Published in The Friday Times

1 Comment

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One response to “Pakistani Rock Comes of Age

  1. mohammad

    For pakistani hoi polloi music devoid of substance does not cut much ice anyway. Wonder why western influenced pseudo virtuoso plug in hackneyed out pedestrian singers, who are in today and gone tomorrow,probably on a Tablighee mission.