WELCOME TO THE age of limbo/ Welcome to no man’s paradise”—these haunting words describe the state of the world today, where life as we knew it has been put on standby mode. These lines form the chorus of the song ‘Age of Limbo’ composed by Mumbai-based artist Maalavika Manoj aka Mali for her latest album Caution to the Wind. Though she had initially written it to reflect the plight of war-ravaged people, it took on new meaning when the world went into lockdown.
With crowdsourced clippings showing desolate city streets devoid of human life, the video cemented the song’s alternative perspective. This was the case for most of the album’s material, recorded in 2019 but which was released only a couple of months back.
“It is a twist of fate—the order of the releases started following the events that were unfolding. For example, ‘Live Again’ was written about personal struggles but it came to signify post-lockdown life for listeners,” says Mali over the phone from her hometown in Chennai.
While the synth-pop inclined ‘Live Again’ dwells on the hope of a better life after enduring hardship, ‘Absolute’ calls out the atrocities of the powers that be. Incidentally, this song was released around the time when farmers’ protests gained momentum and the government’s handling of the pandemic was being questioned. But the melancholic, bass-driven ballad ‘Mundane’ resonated with fans at large, who had settled into the rut of working from their homes.
While the album might have connected better with listeners due to the circumstances, the pandemic itself was a blow to the 27-year-old as she had to delay the official release of the album by almost a year. It also presented some difficulties during the last leg of production. “A single thing, which would probably take about two hours in person, took several days when working remotely. There were several mails back and forth, downloading and uploading tracks with required changes etcetera. That is why it took so long,” she says, adding that she didn’t have the heart to promote the album actively while thousands were dying during the second wave.
While Mali’s problems were largely logistical, singer-songwriter Anoushka Maskey was in the middle of the unfolding crisis. The Sikkim-born musician was stuck in her Bengaluru apartment, completely alone, for three months. Such isolation gave way to the outpouring of emotions in the form of her debut album Things I Saw in a Dream.
“The album was completely born out of the first lockdown. I was not able to meet anybody for about three months. It led to spending a lot of time with myself and introspecting about life. All these songs came out of feelings of loneliness,” she says.
THE ALBUM OPENER ‘Flesh And Bone’—incidentally the first song she wrote—is about skin hunger, a phenomenon that nearly all of us experienced being cut off from our friends and families. A guttural take on craving for physical warmth, which the artist had been deprived of in those lonely months, it resonates with listeners.
Alongside the guzzle of an acoustic guitar, Maskey tries to grapple with social change. There’s a subtle hint of desperation in her voice, a residue of the exhausting struggle with isolation. “Eventually, I learnt to live with myself as soon as I accepted that this is the situation, and we’re dealing with it globally,” she says.
This album was more circumstantial than deliberate. This reflects in its lo-fi production as well. Restricted by lack of resources and inaccessibility to a studio, Maskey resorted to recording the album with an old USB mic plugged into her laptop. The DIY effort produced a veiled sound that seems to come from an isolated, underwater chamber, adding a poignant touch to her tender compositions.
But that in itself afforded a sense of completeness that she might not have found otherwise. “After finishing a song, I played it for myself, sitting all alone in my room. And I experienced a sort of peace, something I’d not experienced before. So, making this EP was therapeutic for me,” she says.
The 24-year-old also touches a political nerve on ‘Whole World in a Bag’, reflecting upon the privileges afforded by a segment of the population, while the majority wilts under the scorching sun on empty Indian highways. “Seeing the plight of migrant workers drove home the concept of home, and how far away it can be for some. I was also deprived of home then, so the song has elements of forlornness and nostalgia.”
The politics of privilege is what drove Pune-based multi-instrumentalist Shreyas Iyengar to visualise his instrumental jazz record Tough Times. Released at the beginning of this year, it is ripe with the understanding of the stark realities of the world, exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The album presents how deeply the world is divided between the haves and have-nots,” he explains. “Watching so many people struggle to survive while seeing some profiting at the cost of others made me realise how bad the situation is.”
Such inequality and glaring contrasts between the rich and poor forms the basis of the ballad ‘Trouble in the Orient’. Iyengar plays with light and shade in his rich soundscape by juxtaposing dense instrumentation with stripped down motifs—the musical equivalent of the contrasts in human life.
He is more direct when he paints the plight of migrant workers and numerous lives lost during the pandemic on the chilling overture ‘Death March’. Even though difficult to consume, a raspy saxophone blaring solemn notes behind baritone piano chords is unavoidable, especially as it carries the horrific imagery of burning bodies and mass graves.
More personal situations are dissected on the suggestive ‘Quarrel Times’, a play on the word ‘quarantine’. This track narrates a widely seen phenomenon during the first days of the lockdown, when people squabbled with families and lovers as a result of being confined together for extended periods of time. Just like the familial ambience, repetitive tensions build up and get released in cycles.
I wrote this EP while I was cut off from the rest of the world. So, it is distinctive as the thought process was different. This is fully stripped down, acoustic and organic, says Bipul Chettri, musician
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While such bleakness might turn someone’s insides to ice, the title track is even more powerful. It is divided into two parts and ends the visual album with a stark warning about stormy skies ahead. “‘Tough Times 1’ is a warning about what we’re going through, while the second part reflects on the calamities that are about to come, like climate change. The pandemic really brought out the differences and climate change is going to amplify that. Poor people are going to suffer its effects much worse,” Iyengar says.
Generations have grappled with anxiety over the recent months. And that is the issue which aswekeepsearching’s latest album Sleep dissects. The Pune-based post-rock outfit, known for its atmospheric ballads and high-intensity ambient soundscapes, took their signature sound down several notches to make an album, which could help people sleep.
Incidentally, this came about from addressing personal mental health issues as some band members were grappling with anxiety, sleeplessness and even panic attacks. Their bassist Robert Alex says non-stop touring and producing albums since 2015 caused some of the stress.
“We were doing too much at a time and it got pretty hectic. Plus, there’s always an added pressure whether audiences will like what we are making. But in the process of giving it your everything, it takes a toll on you, and can result in severe anxiety. We needed to acknowledge that and incorporate it into our music to find some sort of closure,” he says.
As a result, Sleep became a lullaby, which attempts to give a sense of comfort to troubled minds. Soothing tunes, soft piano beds of sounds and melancholic string sections conjure up an otherworldly ambience that sounds like a portal to a dream world.
Recorded just before the pandemic began and released in April 2020, Sleep touched many listeners. The sheer volume of responses that the band received serves as a testament. It would not be far-fetched to call this record self-healing. “Making the album gave us a certain awareness and closure regarding the issue, which is on its own a step towards healing,” says Alex, adding that the album can be healing for the listeners if they allow it.
New Delhi-based singer-songwriter Bipul Chettri , who sings in Nepali, has been able to capture the collective desire for escape powerfully in his EP Samaya (Time). As the title suggests, he attempts to click a polaroid of this turbulent time, along with associated feelings and desires.
“Samaya is about the space and time, which the whole world is experiencing. It reflects a period of quiet, anxiety, loneliness, despair, disillusionment and clinging onto some hope. And all the five songs were written as an escape from this extraordinary situation,” says Chettri, 40.
The fact that he made this EP during the lockdown can be understood by its bare-bones, almost naked presentation. A listener familiar with his music can detect something amiss— the absence of the band. “I was not able to meet my bandmates, with whom I usually sit down and bounce off ideas. I wrote it while being physically and socially cut off from the rest of the world. So, the album is distinctive as the thought process was totally different. This is fully stripped down, acoustic and organic,” he says.
Recording it presented a whole new set of problems. First, he had to wait until the lockdown and transport restrictions were lifted to go to the studio. Even then, the obstacle of social distancing made the recording process rather unfamiliar.
“Often, we did not even meet our sound engineer Anindo Bose. The recording console and live room were on different floors, and we communicated via an internal video set up,” he says.
But that did not affect the EP’s quality. The clean and sparse production enhances the existentialism of Samaya as Chettri digs deep into the collective human consciousness through his own experiences. Riding on the soft flourishes of two fingerstyle guitars, Chettri’s fluttering voice gently pleads with the listener to make peace with the situation as there’s no other way. Since art is reflective of our times and surroundings, the EP was naturally bound to be melancholic. To get past that, he included ‘Naya Din’ (New Day), a hopeful tune that looks forward to reverting to pre-pandemic life.
But still, the despair that the artist faced could not be washed away. A wistfulness squirmed its way into the record on ‘Bhaans Ghari’. Set against the backdrop of wind whistling through a bamboo grove back in Chettri’s native Kalimpong, the song is heartbreaking in its poignant intimacy. It opens a door into the artist’s secret go-to place where he can escape. And perhaps in his music we too can also find our own getaway destinations.