Social Circus - Ali Azmat (2005)




Got Milk?

Finally out. The first Ali Azmat solo album after a long wait. Some say too long. Should've quit Junoon right after "Ishq." Or, at least, soon after last year's dreadful "Dewaar." But this solo outing still doesn't mean the end of Junoon. Apparently Ali is still hopeful. Hopeful that the legendary Pakistani outfit (now seriously aging), still has some steam left, in spite the fact that the band hasn't produced anything decent or worthwhile since 1999's excellent "Parvaaz."

But people in the know already know this. And these include some of the biggest Junoon fans that had been passionately supporting the power trio ever since its initial years as a strict cult indulgence now almost fifteen years ago. But once bandleader, Salman Ahmed, finally let his politics and economic preferences cave–in and consequently let Junoon burn out (nay, bloat and rot!) as just another dinosaur corporate enterprise, many of its early fans found it wise to call it a day.

Because till "Parvaaz" they were used to a passionately soldiering "Sufi–Rock" act more interested in using the power of rugged, socially–conscious music and lyrics to comment on the human condition (in a Pakistani context), instead of (eventually) making an unabashed 360–degree about–turn.

A sudden flip that ultimately saw the same band that first faced life/Pakistan as we know it, and instead decided to face flashy cameras being rolled to make trivial and banal endorsements for cola companies and music channels solely run to bag such companies' corporate patronage.

Well, to cut a long story short, and as vividly (and rather disturbingly) highlighted by "Dewaar," Junoon today are no more than a bunch of aging rock stars going through the motions of shamelessly milking a wrinkled cash cow.

Last Man Standing

However, Ali Azmat offered hope. His solo career was being anticipated as exactly the kind of a breather many disappointed Junoon fans were swimming up for. A long awaited break (rather riddance) from Junoon's ongoing sad pathology. Being the youngest member of the band (though now 35), maybe he could give thirsty Junoon fans what they never got (or now will!) from Junoon after "Parvaaz"?

Well, even though an Ali Azmat album was always on the cards, the urgency surrounding it got even more intense when last year both Salman and Ali decided that their long–time bass player, Brian O'Connell's "clinical depression" (as Ali put it in a recent interview with a women's monthly), was hampering Junoon's future plans and thus should be relieved of duty. Junoon's future plans? Yeah, of course, a clinically depressed thirty–something bassist would certainly not suit the advertising requirements of cola companies and certainly look oh–so–awful accompanying Salman and Azmat at all those bogus music award ceremonies, now wouldn't he?

Anyway, now, with the release of the long awaited Ali Azmat solo album, has he been able to achieve what was being expected from this highly talented singer-songwriter? Let's listen.

Whose Circus is it anyways?

Well, like always, before putting the CD into my player, I as usual closely went through the album's cover and inner sleeve art and text. By 'Social' Azmat means activities and circles dominated by what are lovingly (albeit ironically) called social butterflies or socialites. But instead of calling it a circle, Ali puts a little twist to it and calls it a 'Circus' instead. Nice. Should mean and reflect his distaste for anything and everything social in this context. And it does, until Mr. Azmat yet again falls flat with what our stars (especially in the music scene), usually fall off with: Glaring (though unintentional) contradictions!

First of all starting from the cover's designer, to almost everyone, Ali has so humbly and lovingly thanked, all belong to the social circle/circus he scorns. In fact all these jokers' existence in "creative media" solely depends on being pompous hosts or equally pompous guests at ostentatiously mindless social gatherings that usually turn into cash cow mafias in the country's fashion, advertising and showbiz circles.

So what circus is Ali more than alluding to here? Or is it that since he (along with the likes of Ali Zafar, Strings, et al) is now very much a hijacked victim, is he indirectly and sheepishly mocking their superficial ways? Naaaaaaa. Don't think so. But I have always wondered, though. What is an earthy, in–your–face kind of a guy who once was a fiery part of Junoon's early angry–young–band ways, doing socializing with pure hot air? Hot air though known for their "liberal" and arty–party posturing, is however nowhere to be seen whenever the moral brigades in the shape of the mullah lot and assorted myopics start attacking their beloved professional freedom. Conveniently all the fighting is left to sweaty, non–glamorous fighters like Asma Jehangir and the journalists. Bravo!

At the circus

And now the album. I am not disappointed. And neither am I surprised (pleasantly or otherwise). The chunk opens with "Deewana." But it's not a very promising opening. Maybe the song's hotchpotch video has something to do as far as my verdict in this case is concerned. Awful, awful video, really. The same old ghisa–pita Matrix-meets–Mission Impossible theme and look done to death by a million other acts the world over. And what's more the director unabashedly (as in totally non–innovatively) steals whole scenes from the great Terry Gilliam's 1985 cult classic, Brazil.

Ali seems to like this song, but as a composition it is directionless and certainly not anything that sticks in the brain. I kept hearing it over and over again, but nope! It doesn't even work as one of those tunes that grow on you. It's just there and once done, there is nothing lingering about it. However, I did enjoy the pensive intro though and the prominence the bass gets in the mix. But really, actually sounds like a local boy band freaking on E.

Next up is "Main Challa." The overtly (and a bit too consciously) riff–heavy hard rock number that unfortunately is even more forgetful than "Deewana." Something like Noori's throw–away rock stunts on their cheesy debut album, "Suno Kay Main Hoon Jawan." A case of the influenced influencing the influencer perhaps? Whatever, just couldn't give this number more than two (cringing) listens. I mean, it ain't "Talaash" man! Not by a long (bald) shot.

The iffy riffy dud is followed by "Mangagun." Nay, the magnificent, magnificent "Mangagun." Absolutely the album's ace tune. Ali is rather awesome as a vocalist here, using a voice and style he's never used in Junoon. A tipsy, somber and haunting undertone that perfectly compliment's the tune's brooding ways that crisscross as shifting tempos distributed between cold, cynical textures and sudden hapless depths. Excellent. I would love to see him perform this gem live.

Made my hour, so much so that I was sure the next song would be a thorough anti–climax. And even though "Na re na" is not even close to "Mangagun," in nature, it does carry the latter's tempo changing ways and allusions to eastern classicism, almost sounding like a sequel to Junoon's "Tara Jala."

But then "Dil Ki Sira." A futile attempt at noir–jazz that just hangs at one place posturing away quite like the many social butterflies that stand plastered (along with a few cockroaches) on the album's inner sleeve.

"Main" kicks in sounding like a tune I've already heard somewhere before. It's a rip–off, I am sure and doesn't do a thing to make itself sound its own. Quite unlike Junoon's "Pappu Yaar" that took an old Hendrix riff and made it (quite charmingly) its own.

"Dil sey dil ney kahey" attempts hard to become something it isn't. It's generic pop pretending overt allusions to big-band dynamics but plays flat across and is soon out of mind, memory and the moment.

So thank heavens for "Yaar merey yaar" that plays like a renegade affair between juicy FM–Rock and hard–rock, followed by the tense, introverted "Piyaas" that (maybe incorrectly and in bits) sounds like a SAP–era Alice In Chains ditty. "Piyaas" is good and moves a lot more meaningfully than its three predecessors.

"Dil Ka Jehaan" just goes through the motions of trying to capture the thumb rule intensity laid earlier by "Piyaas" until we arrive at the album's second gem: "Teri Perchaiaan." This one's even better than "Mangagun."

Rounds off the album well and with great purpose, even though I must add that "Social Circus" is at best patchy. Quite like Junoon's "Azadi." Having brilliant moments punctuated with solid, entertaining music but often punctured by ambitious pretensions and just plain posturing.

By the way the lyrics work. They have weight, as Azmat moves from one song to the other passing judgments and observations on characters and situations he has been involved with in Karachi and Lahore's airy social circles; a circus he too is a major part of.

So my question again: Is he ruing his hapless state as that once unknown Lahori kid now caught up in all the hocus–pocus pomposity of the country's ubiquitous fashion, advertising and video mafias, or is he sort of celebrating it all?

But really, it can be Ali Azmat or Ali Zafar or whomsoever big shot popper, the fact remains, they seem quite willingly stuck with those same ol', same ol' designers, stylists, directors, actors and models we are now quite seriously sick of. These guys operate like a glitzy cult that glorify their utter unoriginality and will not tolerate any innovation and newness to upset their hold over the 'modern' workings of the country's showbiz scene. Ali Azmat is very much a part of it and one should not get fooled by his "Hey, I'm a radical individualist" posturing. He's equally at ease selling ice-cream along with Ali Noor and Bilal Maqsood, and thus, I venture, as predictable and "pragmatic" as say, Maulana JJ and Hazrat Najam.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha
The News International, Pakistan

Pakipop.com