Far From Middling

Mercurial would be my single-word description for Project Mishram‘s album ‘Meso’ if I chose to indulge in radically damming the flow of words for the music here. It would be quite a good descriptor though for the agile, rapidly shifting nature of the compositions and for their delightful brightness. The word ‘meso’ means middle but there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about what this septet and their collaborators have pulled off here.

I’m wary of attempts at fusing genres of music; I’ve seen too many failures even from master musicians to be anything but. When I first saw and heard Project Mishram play live, I saw potential but in absolute terms it was underwhelming. Those were very early days for the band; I think they were still in college back then. But I kept an ear out for them and heard a few singles that they released, the last of which I heard (till this new album came out) “Cynic Machine” caught some of my attention (it has a few great moments) and made me hope fervently that they would grow to realise that potential that was hazily visible on the first experience I had of their music. Potential that many others – and influential ones at that – saw as well. It got them an invitation to perform at UK Tech-Fest in 2019 on the back of which they mounted a little UK tour. They were impressive enough to merit a recall, possibly with a later and better time-slot, at the 2020 edition of the festival. And then we all got bugged. Despite the setback caused by the pandemic, they released ‘Meso’ earlier this year, an exception amidst the plethora of fusion music failures and mediocrity.

The world of beverages celebrates ‘pure’ brews; single origin coffee, single malt whisky. But for me the really interesting and rewarding sip comes from great blends because they require creativity, understanding, competence, nose and taste of a very high order. Not easy at all, with success rising up rarely but that too only on the shambled bed of innumerable disastrous attempts. When it does work well, however, it is like nothing you have experienced. So it is with ‘Meso’, a rare and complex blend of music that makes for a heady experience; well, for the most part, that is. “Sakura” is evocative of the ethereal beauty of cherry blossoms (of the title) blooming in profusion in a Japanese spring. Without one quite realising it the song seamlessly moves from modern progressive music to the Indian Carnatic Classical form, then it all comes together in a gloriously exhilarating mix of the ancient classical form with the currency of energetic progressive rock and then in conclusion it wafts down gently like a falling autumn leaf. This relatively mild yet rich blend is the perfect set up for one to move to the sanity-defying, multi-layered madness that is “Nivaasa”. Bossa nova/Samba segues effortlessly into old school dancey jazz featuring a wonderful brass trio of guests Arun Luthra (tenor saxophone), Dion Tucker (trombone) and Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet), socialises convivially with Carnatic Classical music, progressively flows into cool jazz and then comes back together in a near-impossible, exceptional cocktail. This song is ridiculously irreverent in its ambition and in the greatest compliment to the band’s undoubted craftsmanship, it works spectacularly well. As someone who grew up with a lot of Indian classical music at home and then gradually expanded his listening to a large array of music forms, I have for long believed that the gravitas and spiritual depth of some of the Indian ragas fit well with the dark, visceral energy of metal. The raga Varaali is one of those and Project Mishram has used those qualities exceedingly well in taking the classic “Kanakana Ruchira” and giving it the progressive metal treatment and in the process roping in the vocal punch of Kieran McLaughlin, better known as Kmac2021. The tranquility of the classical part is in perfect harmony with the headbanging energy of the metal element. Not surprisingly this and “Nivaasa” are among my most played songs this year.

In the midst of this is “Loco Coko” which unfortunately subverts the maturity that is palpable through this album. It’s an over-indulgent exercise in facetious cleverness, which seems to be a peculiar bug that infects some of Bangalore’s young progressive music brigade. That said, I suspect this is a crowd-winner and will probably be a staple at their live performances whenever those resume. What did I say about perception in an earlier piece that I wrote? There is a smartness in ending the album with “Mangalam” which in Carnatic Classical music is traditionally a concert closer, an invocation for goodness and happiness to be bestowed on all the listeners. In a deft touch, it starts with an introduction in a style that was the norm on radio and classical music live concerts. It is a nice composition but I will not hide my mild disappointment with it. It is just too lightweight in my opinion for the compositional suaveness (yes, even of that wretched “Loco Coko”) of the rest of the album.

Despite those aberrations, I rate ‘Meso’ as one of the best albums I have heard this year for the rare, sheer brilliance of the rest of the album. It is unfettered and fearless, experimenting with scant regard for norms but with utmost reverence for the quality of the artists’ craft. Many years back I had said of Agam‘s (another band that uses Indian classical music in a contemporary context) music that its importance lies not so much in bringing Indian classical music to a mixed-influence rock audience as it does in taking rock music to a pure-bred and difficult audience of classical music. I will say the very same thing for Project Mishram and I can’t give them a better compliment than this. I only hope that they stick with making music and that they keep getting better.

On a slightly different but related note, this album also showcases the rapidly improving quality of production coming out of India. Engineers and producers like Thejus Nair at Eleven Guage Recordings make me hopeful of more of the bands here working with them instead of blindly running to established names.

You can/buy stream ‘Meso’ on Bandcamp.

You can stream the album here:

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