Jan 18, 2010

A new shade of anger: Azha Usou

Artiste: Azha Usou
Album: The Last Serenade
Genre/Style: Post-Goth, Melodic Death
Producer/Studio: Alfred Besu/
Clef Ensemble, Kohima
Rating: Must-Have

Sub-genres of elemental Progressive Metal music such as Symphonic Goth, Melodic Death Metal and Classical Avangarte remain the most complex, yet the most elegant forms of metal. No wonder, their optimized form of expression and eclecticism has found comparative association with proper Classical and even Jazz (in this case, in terms of appropriation) – no surprise that elemental metal inextricably revolves around Classical adaptations. From Epica to Ominum Gatherum, Lacuna Coil to Sonata Arctica, Luca Truilli to Apocalyptica, and Dream Theater to Virgin Black – the touch of classicist intervention.

That’s the problem actually: The badge of honor elemental rock wears has also definitely inspired insufferable bastard genres – those so-called “emo” and “scremo” from Punk kids who cannot tell apart Death Metal from Sludge Grunge music (read Nagaland). Naturally, when former Black Rose frontman Azha Usou’s ‘The Last Serenade’ was handed to me promising of a totally unique, serious experience, I was like, ‘yeah, yeah, sure whateva.’

I decided to review ‘The Last Serenade’ for two reasons: (i) The album is a pointer to Naga musicianship getting more serious and (ii) The album certainly qualifies – at least partially – with the elemental metal tag (say post-Goth Melodic Death Metal) – a genre no Naga musician has put to production, not in this magnitude at least.

Let’s try the Gothic sensibilities. The Last Serenade’s intro, ‘Silent Footsteps’ is a beautifully bleak 1-minute violin foray reminiscent of Epica. Was I astounded at what the prelude led into: ‘Embrace your End’ is one of the most exquisite Goth intermissions I’ve ever listened to (Trust me, Mr. D. Thomas, I own more than 4,000 albums of the Power/Goth/Prog/Symphonic Metal genre alone, and I’m not bragging). With vocals even Dani Filth would grin in bloody glee, this song is woven exclusively around a mosaic of delicately mourning violin intermissions; grieved appeals of Azha. (Curiously my current playlist has Epica’s ‘Run for the Fall’ and Therion’s ‘Son of the Sun.’ The similarity notwithstanding) EYE is definitely too beautiful even to be Goth. Awesome.

‘Transcendentalism’ is more of a Progressive Metal staple in the vein of Spock’s Beard-meets-Winger. The guitar interludes are amazing – flowing, unpretentious and subtle but as vigorous as any Power Prog fan would like it to be. I had some problem with the voice mastering though – too much reverb? The vocal was more cultured in EYE. Otherwise ‘Transcendentalism’ is a huge leap into what power rock purists call ‘Collateral Phrase’ – a sense of Art where it was not intended. Another winner.

I wasn’t surprised when ‘Melodic Wrath’, as the name sufficiently suggested, came on – a very harmonious piece of Melodic Death Metal. Just one issue here: those “drums” are percussion Pre-sets; you can take my word that no metal download website will take it – it sounds like a video game demo in MIDI. (Or perhaps I’m too spoilt and fussy after listening to Siberian prog band Alogia. Alogia’s sublime album ‘Secret Spheres of Art,’ I should say, has refreshed my sensibility about tonal craftsmanship!) Aside from the Pre-sets, I loved ‘Melodic Wrath.’ A slab of fast, aggressive but melodic metal, any mosher would love.

Sigh. I don’t know why Naga musicians also wear wrong dress combos? Are Naga rockers so insecure that they are so desperate to prove their mettle as masters of every style? Or perhaps, you wanna please Everybody and his first cousin, Everyone. Oh gosh, after the wonderful string of elegance, Azha Usou does Funk Blues in ‘HoneyJane’ and an equally ugly technoish ‘Pretty Woodstock Baby.’ Look, I love Jimi Hendrix, Pandit Harishchandrasen, Pink Martini and Bill Vaughan. Even the Trance experiments of Omen I listen to. But when Goth metal songs are suddenly attacked by maudlin, mushy, nonsensical peppy numbers in the like of the Lady Gagas and those Boy things, the firing squad’s services are needed. Don’t forget: Children of Bodom nearly lost its entire Norway fanbase when it did a “death metal” version of…yuck…Britney Spears’ ‘Oops I did it again’ all in the name of musical artistry. Gosh.

But rejoice, Azha Usou and his horde regain their composure from the temporary idiocy with ‘Endless Screams,’ a white hot slab of avant-garde Melodic Prog reminiscent of Symphony X’s ‘Lies of the World.’ ‘Endless Screams’ is now among my Tops. I’m amazed Azha managed this awesome bit after the insufferably stupid two songs earlier. Wonderful guitar arrangements, no drum Pre-sets (no proper rock song is a rock song if without real, live and kicking acoustic drums!).
And did I mention a number called ‘Broken Rose’? I listen to everything from Jim Morrison to Jimmy Vaughan, Joan Baez to Dylan, Methanelie to Theja Meru but ‘Broken Rose’ is a half-baked Blues idiocy. Quit fooling around, guys.

Thankfully, ‘The Last Serenade’ and ‘Goodnight Dad’ follow the fine Classicism of ‘Embrace Your End’, although purely instrumental in violin and a high-head or two. One may even find nuances of Guilliani or Luca Truilli in them, but the Goth influence is clear in the mournful passages. Beautifully crafted pieces.

I am convinced that Azha’s ‘The Last Serenade’ is the sign of a new generation of Naga musicians who not only want to do good originals, but also are unafraid to be artistic. Other than the three hiccups, this album is a Must-Have for all serious rock fans. Congratulations Azha, you just broke new ground.

Jan 8, 2010

Mike Tramp's White Lion roars in India

Decades down the line, after your eyes have reduced to nothing more than two cotton balls, your ears clogged tight with the earwax of wild youth, and your teeth retired into gumhood, you can boast to your 10th grandchild: that you were there – in flesh, blood – when Nagaland stepped into the era of major time music and serious time rock stars.

Then, you can explain to your grandchild how you whistled, shouted, screamed, jumped, moshed and waved your creatively contorted yoga-friendly fingers along with thousand pairs of other hungry hands; how the band slammed you into ecstasy with one hit after another and on and on and on. And oh, you can also point out to your grandchild the exact date when you actually went super deaf at a very young age…

In a night that would be referred to as the exact span when Nagaland stepped into an era of mainstream and international music performance, eighties’ hard rock greats White Lion tonight, December 16, 2008, played to a capacity crowd at Dimapur District Sports Council stadium, a night to be remembered for so many a reason. The band sent fans into dizzy with a flurry of crowd pleasers – yep, good ole classics and none a bit of their latest materials. While the number of fans was not to the extent of what was being generally expected considering a band in the stature of White Lion, the concert was rousing and the fans couldn’t ask for more.

After a wee bit of delay and waiting for the evening to darken, the show finally got off with Dimapur’s own noise makers XTC and Native Rising. Quite strangely the two popular local bands – “opening acts” – pulled off barely 6 sets between them. Native Rising performed a number while XTC did two. The widespread whisper inside DDSC stadium tonight was that, the entire evening and stage had already been surrendered to the blonde rockers from New York – and more so considering the main act is not only an international band but also the first ever band of stature to be performing in the state.

Notwithstanding random theories that find birth in the minds of impatient rock fans, White Lion’s Troy Patrick popped out from the band’s dressing shed and shouted to the XTC bandits to sing a couple more. So XTC’s frontman Moanungsang mobilized the crowd again and did another, this time with an acoustic slung across his mane. Notwithstanding, the off-tune D-string of his acoustic, Moanungsang and his gang warmed up the gathering fans. Then, during what was perceived to be XTC’s “final” number, White Lion’s axeman Jamie Law popped out of his shed and yelled to the band to do “three more” songs (Jamie was holding up three fingers to Moanungsang’s mob on the stage). Then it finally dawned upon the gathering mass that White Lion was actually waiting for “a little dark”.

Lovely Rozelle Mero announced to the crowd a couple of times about “let’s wait for the evening to grow a little dark”. (By the way, do you know that lions are best hunters only after or in dark?). So waiting for the “dark” to darken, the massing crowd was treated to an irritatingly painful set of soundtracks to “warm up”.

Finally, after a good dose of minutes filled with colorful F-words and many more “White Lion, ami tu khor jai ase dey!” (‘White Lion, I am going home ok?!’) from the impatient Dimapur crowd, the blond carnivores finally took the stage. And boy, take the stage, did they!

Skinsman Troy Patrick Farrell threw a hitter (or “drumstick”) into the crowd that had a good number of hefty Naga guys clawing at each other. Jamie Law wasn’t behind. After sound-check he flung a plectrum to the fans but, unfortunately the strummer was too thin to actually reach its intended destination so it fell somewhere off. A generous volunteer found it and handed it over to at least about nine pairs of hungry hands.

Bassman EJ Curse – also a singer and bassist for California outfit Silent Rage – looked cool in his Sumi vest so was guitarist Jamie Law – looking all blond, white and eager to rock. Keyboardist Henning Wanner held the fort on his own while backing Mike in the vocal adventures. And drummer Troy made sure he kept the energy of the band supplied.

The band took off with one of their crunchier songs, ‘Lonely Nights’ from the breakthrough album ‘Pride’. Their set was mainly from the albums ‘Pride’ (1987) and Mane Attraction (1991). In the following hour, the band would play up Dimapur’s crowd with almost all the popular numbers White Lion has been attributed to – from the iconic ‘Little Fighter’ (from the Big Game EP) to ‘Love Don’t Come easy’. One of the highlights of the band’s performance was the anthem ‘Hungry’, a rousing number America lapped up eagerly when it was released as the A-side first song on the album ‘Pride’. ‘Hungry’ by its sheer energy, roused the crowd into a higher level of “participation”.

Then came the band’s first ever hit single ‘Wait’ (released 1987 but peaked the charts in February 1988); then came, of course, of course the mandatory ‘When the children cry – and ‘You’re all I need’, the two songs even the dingiest shed in the remotest village in Nagaland has a cassette of. Both WTCC and YAIN were improvised but the fans lapped it up happily. Not to mention of “singing” along.

The about one hour of the band’s set left the crowd raspy and husky after a deafening spell of pure energy and a performance truly worthy of a band in the stature of white Lion. Notwithstanding a stray tune or two from Mike’s singing after a number of songs, and a bit subdued sound for Henning Wanner’s keyboards, the show was truly rousing for the gathered fans. It was a night Dimapur would remember in as much for the music, as it is for the significance of the night of December 16.