Niraj Chag :: Along the Dusty Road
You know right from the haunting electronics-meet-spoken word of the title track that Niraj Chag has well and truly arrived. And what a journey it's been. From the early days of putting in time at the studio of Artful Dodger Mark Hill to being a core part of the Outcaste New Breed crew and then much later, Dum Dum Project, he's pretty much done it all. All he had left to accomplish was that most elusive and painstaking of projects - the debut album. For Along The Dusty Road, Niraj has created thirteen downbeat cinematic soundscapes in six languages that remind us of prime-time Nitin Sawhney (think, Beyond Skin).
The piano and beats-driven "Khwaab" (The Dream), a track that Nihal called "one of the most sensuous, soulful and beautiful tracks" that he'd heard in his current capacity as BBC Radio 1 DJ and all-round Asian music tastemaker, benefits greatly from featured vocalist Swati Natekar. Already a recognizable, and deservedly so, voice in electronic music circles due to her work with everyone from Talvin and Nitin to Craig Armstrong, Natekar questions, in Hindi, whether her life is just a dream over the most sublime of melodies. "Khwaab" makes a reprise as a bonus track at the end of the album, this time with Bengali lyrics by newcomer Melissa Baten. One of the first songs written by Niraj for Along the Dusty Road, it is also its finest, in either language.
The intricate Punjabi breaks of "Ghar" (Home) is the other highlight of an already sonically diverse album. Here, guitars go back and forth with flutes over glitchy electronic rhythms that deserve repeated listens. Asian music has rarely sounded so experimental and daring. "Allah Hoo" is 21st century Sufi Qawali in a similar vein as "Ali" by the MIDIval PunditZ. Like "Ali," this one is all over the rhythm meter, mixing up synth-driven trance arpeggios with hip-hop breaks. All along, Faheem Mazhar gives Vishal Vaid a serious run for his money with his Qawali performance. Ustad Nusratji would have undoubtedly been proud.
The disc is a largely subdued affair - "Sajana," "Tanaha Dil," and "Bangles" all flow well individually, as well as collectively - organic and electronic elements coexist well enough in a certain tempo range. Elsewhere and more interestingly, "The Nomad" features both vocals, both proper and adlibs, by Mazhar and Baten over a smooth hip-hop rhythm, accompanied by the tabla bols of Prithpal Sirjeet. Niraj gets experimental on "Kanya," chopping, looping and generally manipulating the Kathak inspired vocal recitals of Gauri Tripathi, against truly powerful drum programming.
Along the Dusty Road is definitely a sonic journey and describing it as anything else would be doing it a disfavor. While it lacks the harder breakbeats that Niraj has been known for in the past ("The Wheel" off the Nasha Eastern Drum and Breaks compilation and early Outcaste material), it comes full circle, ending on an outro that utilizes the rhythm of its opener and title track. Clearly a fan of the classical sublimity of the music of a bygone era (the artwork is very telling and he dedicates the album to the generation of his grandparents), Niraj's production is unlike anything we've heard in a while.