Rewinding The Tape – Looking Back on 15 Defining Indian Indie tracks (Part 1)

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When I discussed with an older friend what he would envision his ten classic Indian Indie tracks to be, his choices made me immediately realize that the scene is far older than I, and most people my age, probably give it credit for. While my generation lionizes the likes of Peter Cat Recording Co, The Local Train, and The F16s, these artists themselves were the products of an older bastion of musicians. Generational favoritism may always persist, but the success of today’s artists would be impossible had the way forward not been paved by their predecessors. Boiling down the entirety of what could be conceivably considered “classic” tracks to 15 is not just a herculean task, but an inevitably incomplete one. Regardless, in our attempt to pay dues, in no particular order here are fifteen defining tracks of the ever evolving Indian independent music scene.

15. Indus Creed – Pretty Child

Could there be a better place to start? To call Indus Creed pioneers of Indian rock would be an understatement. The band, originally known as Rock Machine, formed almost 40 years ago and has come to influence and inspire generations of rock musicians in the country. What began as a cover band soon gained increasing popularity through their original tunes, of which “Pretty Child” was a standout. Going by relatively unnoticed upon its release in 1990, the song catapulted the band to superstardom through its instantly recognizable black and white music video three years later. The video not only won the Asia specific MTV music video, but also featured in the global top ten alongside internationally renowned acts.

Pretty Child and later works from the band also saw the incorporation of Indian instruments in composition, with both the sarangi and tabla featuring heavily. Both the video and the song itself seem firmly entrenched in the global musical culture of the 1990s. Its reach extended beyond the borders of the subcontinent and gave budding native musicians a belief that Indian rock could be its own distinct and successful genre.

14. Hasnuhana – Fossils

Formed in the late 90s, Fossils have grown to be undisputed rock legends in Bengal. Coming together at a time when Bengali folk songs were the dominant force on charts, the hard rock outfit were initially unsuccessful in breaking through to the mainstream. Their debut self-titled EP marked a change in tides that allowed the group to accrue a growing niche audience amongst the youth. Over their twenty something years in the industry, the band has developed a near cult like following with their front man, Rupam Islam, being at the forefront of their image.

Released near the peak of their stardom, “Hasnuhana” sees the band try to capture a feeling of nihilistic meaninglessness whilst leaving room for hope through a blooming “hasnuhana” flower.

13. Goddess Gagged – Sink or Swim

The influence of acts like Porcupine Tree on Goddess Gagged is immediately evident, as their members themselves will gladly profess. The five-piece progressive metal/post grunge outfit’s sound is emblematic of the early to late 2000s. Characterized by powerful yet atmospheric guitar riffs that are matched by equally awesome solos, the group has managed to pull in fans who might have even initially veered away from metal acts. Siddharth Basrur’s voice, which sounds straight out of the post grunge/hardcore class, is an inescapable highlight of the band’s repertoire. 

From their debut 2011 album, “Resurfaces”, “Sink or Swim” was the first song the band put to video. Hearing it now, nearly ten years after its initial release, the song itself is transportive. A speedy electric riff that builds into a heavy power chord before Basrur enters with his uniquely baritone voice typifies the track as a post grunge anthem. Fans of early 2000s rock would be sorely missing out if they hadn’t heard of Goddess Gagged.    

12. Zero – PSP12

Ask any Bombay rock fanatic what the greatest Indian rock song is and you’d be hard pressed to find a different answer than “PSP12”. All the way back in 2009, an article by Indiecision declared Zero’s “Hook” the album of the decade. Recording for the project took less than a week, and writing “PSP12” took less than three minutes. Zero built their brand around choruses, and PSP was the perfection of this craft.

An infectious bassline, spacy guitar riff, but most importantly an in your face and overwhelming chorus blasted by Rajeev Talwar make “PSP12” what it is. There isn’t anything complicated to see here, just a good old fashioned rock song with a timelessly infectious hook.  

11. Scribe – ‘Cops, Cops (Cops Cops)’

It would be impossible to discuss the growth of the independent music scene in India without also paying heed to pioneers of the metalcore/hardcore style. With their own twist to the genre being affectionately dubbed “Scribecore” by their fans, Scribe were icons of their time. Covering songs like “What Goes Around Comes Around” into a metalcore style, the Mumbai metalheads were as far from mundane as one could be.

To fans of the genre, it doesn’t get much better than “Cops, Cops (Cops Cops)”. Few vocalists can combine growls, screams, and rapid fire raps with a melodic hook. Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy’s vocal performances often leave one wondering whether he really is one person. Although he is making his name as a director now, Krishnamoorthy will be forever enshrined in Indian metal history for his time as Scribe’s front man.

10. Them Clones – Zephyretta

Delhi based rockers, “Them Clones”, made a name for themselves in the Delhi University circuit before achieving nationwide stardom through their debut album “Love.Hate.Heroes”. Although the album spawned more heavy tracks like “My Life”, “Zephyretta” is a show stealer. The soft rock ballad has come to be a staple amongst Delhi rock enthusiasts, fans, and artists alike.

Its heartfelt, but not romantic. Simple, yet not direct. It’s everything you’d expect from a soft rock hit and then some.

9. Sky Rabbit – Anti Coke Ganpati

I think what set Sky Rabbit apart from their contemporaries was their unwillingness to adhere to conventional standards of alternative rock. Most bands, even the technically impressive ones, still derived a great deal of their sound and style from their Western counterparts. The electronic post-punk group from Mumbai brought a breath of fresh air that even today sounds distinctive.

“Anti-Coke Ganpati” is about as weird a song as the name would suggest. With near nonsensical lyrics like “Me for President/We’ll fight this rank A blasphemy”, there isn’t much clarity as to what the song is really about. Its appeal lies in Raxit Tewari’s deadpan nonchalant deliver alongside the airy spaced out, almost stoner-esque instrumental accompanying it.

8. 3. Shaa’ir and Func – New Day

Monica Dogra’s breakout project was an electronic rock duo alongside Pentagram’s guitarist Randolph Correia. Through combining irregular beats with more traditional rock riffs alongside Dogra’s unabashedly pop vocals, the group saw success in the early to mid-2000s, even featuring in Abhishek Kapoor’s “Rock On”.

The titular track of their debut album, “New Day” is the kind of song that forces you to get on your feet and groove. By all accounts, Dogra is now one of the country’s most pedestalized vocalists and its easy to see why. Shaa’ir and Func had a sound that is yet to be rediscovered nearly 15 years since their debut. 

7. Thermal and a Quarter – Where The State Has No Name

At this point in their career, Thermal and a Quarter are part of Bangalore’s folklore. An entire generation of musicians owe their musical upbringing to the group’s music school, “Taaqademy” and the group has been constantly innovating to mainstream and better the quality of music education in the country. In an almost quarter century long career, the band has been prolific in their output given the myriad of other endeavours they’ve undertaken.

Off their fifth of eight albums, “Where The State Has No Name”, is emblematic of the topicality of TAAQ’s music. The happy go lucky jingle chorus fans the deeper question the song attempts to ask – what gives us meaning anyway?  

6.  Motherjane – Broken

Coming up around the same time as TAAQ, Kochi progressive rock outfit Motherjane were early proponents of combining elements of Carnatic music with hard rock. With acts like Thaikkudam Bridge achieving widespread popularity, its hard to not acknowledge their forefathers. Motherjane’s prominence in the 2000s has been well noted by musicians and critics alike, with Rock Street Journal declaring them the band of the decade in 2010.

Their 2008 album, “Maktub”, was widely acclaimed for its fusion elements, being named album of the year by Rolling Stone India. Critical acclaim aside, the band has also been immensely popular in the college circuit and has headlined numerous festivals in their lengthy career. “Broken” is perhaps the paragon track in their catalogue, perfectly illustrating how classical Indian instruments can be interwoven with a progressive rock ballad.

5. The Raghu Dixit Project – Hey Bhagwan

Back in 2010, I remember rushing to the record store to purchase the new Linkin Park album. Having some money left over, I picked up an unassuming red case labelled “Antaragni | The Fire Within”. Now at ten years old, I had never even heard non-English music outside of Bollywood soundtracks. I had no idea what prompted me to pick up Raghu Dixit’s debut album that day, but by god am I grateful I did. A decade since that date, the album is one of perhaps ten CDs that I still preserve no matter where I go.

Any one of the eight tracks on this album could be discussed here but “Hey Bhagwan” holds a special place. In all my life listening to albums, no opening track has quite grabbed my attention like this one did. If you haven’t already heard it, I envy the fact that you get the chance to experience it for the first time.

4. Parikrama But It Rained

Almost thirty years old, but with no full length album to their name, Parikrama have been a perennial face of Indian independent music since their formation. Pioneers of the “Indian Rock” sound that utilized the tabla and mridangam alongside Western instruments, their influence is instantly recognizable amongst most of the bands listed even here.

The 1996 track, “But It Rained”, is perhaps their most widely popular release. The song was dedicated to kidnappings in the Kashmiri valley and holds relevance even today. When they opened for Iron Maiden in Bangalore, I remember my seniors telling me how the sing along to the track rivalled the popular Maiden songs even. You simply can’t discuss Indian rock without Parikrama. The loss of their lead guitarist and founder Sonam Sherpa earlier this year was one of the most painful demises in the community till date.

3. Blackstratblues – Ode To A Sunny Day

Warren Mendonsa, the lead guitarist of Zero, has come to set the standard for quality instrumental music since the inception of his solo project. Blackstratblues does away with the flashiness of speedy soloes in favor of composing distinctive melodies that are loaded with emotion. Most of the artists listed here are fantastic live performers that thrive on the stage, but Mendosna’s project is able to captivate audiences without a single word being uttered.

“Ode To A Sunny Day” was written during Mendonsa’s time in New Zealand, where the winter often clouds the sun for days on end. On one auspicious day when it finally popped out, Warren composed almost the entirety of the track while sitting with his guitar. Comments comparing the guitarist to David Gilmour do him a disservice, he is his own magician.

2. Pentagram – Voice

While Vishal Dadlani has now become a face for Indian music due to his exhaustive work as a producer/composer in Hindi Cinema, his Rockstar image was cultivated through Pentagram. The Mumbai based electronic rock group were verifiable rockstars in every regard. 25 years since their creation and few vocalists have been able to match the presence and quality that Dadlani’s voice wielded.

As great as their recordings are, the 2013 MTV Unplugged performance is in a league of its own. The lead single from “It’s OK, It’s All Good”, “Voice” was an instant hit that remains a gold standard for alternative rock in the country. If you only know Dadlani as a Bollywood composer, do yourself a favor and check out Pentagram’s catalogue right now.

1. Indian Ocean – Kandisa

It would in my view be disrespectful to close this list with any other artist. Indian Ocean quite literally pioneered, if not entirely defined, the genre of fusion rock as we know it today. Combining elements of ragas with classic instruments in Western rock alongside themes of revolution, environmentalism, and sufism amongst more, they were trailblazers in every sense of the word.

The live version of this song at the British Council, one of the few recordings that has the late Asheem Chakravarty on the track, is as close to spiritual as one can get. No other act deserves the “timeless” moniker as much as them.