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A Passage From India

Tushar Menon opens our new column exploring prog from the Indian subcontinent

As a high school, later undergraduate, student in Bangalore in the early part of the last decade, my musical terrain was shaped almost exclusively by hard rock and metal bands from the seventies and eighties.

Local bands were largely judged by their mimetic prowess- requests at the weekly “Sunday Jam” were unceasingly for Maiden, Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne songs. But as the quality of the tag lines for these gatherings improved (which isn’t difficult if you begin with “Sunday Jam- no bread!”), so too did the focus on original material. The idea of starting a band in order to play covers is almost a thing of the past. Whereas a decade ago a band would coyly introduce a song of theirs as an “own comp” to highlight its novelty, today original music from young bands in India is slowly entering the market.

It is into this hyphen-laden market that Bangalore-based prog-metal four-piece Rainburn are poised to make a mark.  Formed in 2011, they recently released an excellent five-track debut EP, Canvas Of Silence, commemorated by an album launch gig at Bangalore’s Counter Culture in early November. The success of the show speaks to the change in the attitude of the concert-going public. Lead guitarist and vocalist Vats Iyengar says, slightly less enthusiastically of the change, “Well, they’re not exactly saying ‘play some Ozzy’ anymore, but essentially, they sometimes say ‘play something that sounds like Ozzy’ if you know what I mean… but the change that has happened, I think we owe to guys like Indus Creed and Pentagram, and the others who speak of how hard it was to play original music at the time.” 

Rainburn’s music is subtly eclectic while remaining unmistakably steeped in tropes of progressive music. The band certainly does not play stuff that sounds like Ozzy, or indeed explicitly like anyone else. There is, undoubtedly, the noticeable influence of several canonical prog bands- there are echoes of Dream Theater on the riff-heavy opener Refuge, the melodic sensibilities of Moving Pictures-era Rush on the title track, and even shades of Mastodon’s Crack The Skye on the closing Fragments. A cynical view might suggest that it “ticks all the boxes”, in some sense. And while that is hard to disagree with, Canvas of Silence is considerably deeper than that view would suggest. There is nothing ad-hoc about the sections in 13/8 or the sweep picked arpeggios or the slapped guitars (an especially welcome addition to the title track). On the organic incorporation of, for example, Carnatic music on the song Time Turns Around, Iyengar reflects, “I love fusion stuff, especially Shakti and Prasanna… The album Natural Elements by Shakti, I must have listened to it five hundred times… I guess it all comes out subtly in what I write.”

Iyengar continues, bringing up an odd musical idiosyncrasy that he and I share with a lot of people who grew up in Bangalore around the same time, “I think it’s their most accessible for someone with a western frame of reference. That’s a strange thing to say about both of us, but that’s our background… I attended a Matthias Eklundh clinic a few years ago and he was talking about odd time signatures and stuff… and he said ‘all this should be second nature to you guys; it’s in your music everywhere! It’s strange that I’m showing you this stuff!’” But whatever the source, Rainburn’s synthesis of elements of Carnatic music with the more traditional progressive elements is unique and understated. A small bass flurry or the occasional sitar style vibrato, a la Greg Howe makes for a rewarding trip through the EP on a six or seventh spin.

Canvas of Silence sees a young band dipping their toes into the water. At a playing time of a little under 30 minutes, it suffers slightly from the limited scope. It is intended to help look for distribution deals for a full-length album, and on the strength of the EP, it is not hard to believe Iyengar when he says “a full-length album would be much more cohesive. I have a lot of ideas kicking around already.” It is certainly worth waiting to see what the freedom of a broader canvas, if you’ll excuse the tortured pun, will evoke from Rainburn. My money is on it being something well worth the wait. 

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