Shape Shifters

March 21, 2011 8:28 am by

From left, guitarist Randolph Correia, vocalist Vishal Dadlani, bassist Papal Mane and drummer Shiraz Bhattacharya.

When Pentagram—vocalist Vishal Dadlani, guitarist Randolph Correia, drummer Shiraz Bhattacharya and bassist Papal Mane—released their third album, It’s OK, It’s All Good in 2007, they shot a few publicity pictures for the promotion of the new release. The photos featured the band in staged poses, some of them pulling faces, some holding props and wearing make-up. Last week, when they announced the release of fourth album Bloodywood, the accompanying publicity pictures featured the four members in their everyday clothes, at Mumbai landmarks like Juhu beach and a local train. Except for the white T-shirts that spell out the name of their album, they’re dressed just as they would be if you bumped into them on street. The difference between the two sets of pictures is telling, for Bloodywood is an album by a band that’s finally comfortable in its own skin.

In the relatively short history of Indian rock music, 17-year-old, Mumbai-based Pentagram is a band whose evolution has been perhaps the most public of all the groups out there. Their first three albums marked three distinct stages in sound; their 1996 debut We’re Not Listening leaned heavily if efficiently on their alternative rock and heavy metal influences; 2002’s Up was an eyebrow-raising introduction to the electronica influences that have become an integral part of their current sound, while It’s OK, It’s All Good found them strike the perfect balance between those two seemingly disparate influences. If they spent the first 13 years of their career figuring out who they are, during the last four years, they seem to finally know who they are. Bloodywood is their most complex and mature work till date.

“In comparison with It’s Okay, It’s All Good and Up, there’s a lot more deeper flavours on this album,” said Correia, who came up with basic structures of almost all the songs before they were fleshed out in the jam room. “You have your drum n’ bass or your dubstep or your basic house or techno or whatever, [but] you could see all of those influences blatantly on the last album. This is a little deeper…there’s a lot of the back to the ’90s on this album, the kind of stuff we grew up on. A lot of ’90s guitar sounds.” When it came to writing words to the riffs and loops Correia provided him, Dadlani looked both within and outside for inspiration. Tracks such as “Human Failings” and “This Could Get Ugly” are cathartic explorations of personal relationships, while “Mental Zero” and “Must I” include the kind of socio-political commentary first demonstrated on “Voice”.  But unlike that career-defining anthem, the songs on Bloodywood aren’t asking people to change, they’re just showing them why they need to. “Songs like ‘Voice’ have been about trying to get people to come to a realisation, but along the way, you come to your own realisation,” Dadlani said. “You need to just say what you feel, and let them take it where they want to take it.”

From “Mental Zero”, where he sings “I can take you through the process but I can’t make you think” to “Identify” where he asks “What makes you different? What makes you special? What makes you matter?”, the dominant message of Bloodywood seems to be: you need to figure out who you are for yourself. It’s something that has taken Pentagram itself 17 years to achieve. “On this album especially, we’ve had the least amount of conflict in terms of writing,” said Dadlani. “Usually, there’s four thought processes in the band.” Most songs were written in a matter of minutes. “It’s amazing how we came to the same centre in terms of focus or in terms of understanding between who we are as a band and as individuals as well,” said Correia. “Everything just fell into place.”

Ultimately, Bloodywood is a celebration of both the band and the Indian rock scene. One of the stand-outs on the album, which boasts 14 strong tracks and not a single filler is “This Could Get Ugly”; it could serve as the musical answer to anyone who asks Pentagram about the secret of their longevity. “It’s about a relationship, between any two people, not necessarily a romantic relationship,” said Dadlani. “For example, you could be somebody’s friend, and you could have this nasty fall-out, and it could get totally fucked up. But there are some friendships that last 17 years, that even if it fucks up, you know that person’s part of your life forever, whether or not that relationship as you guys had defined it exists or not.”

But Bloodywood, the band says is not just about Pentagram, but about the legions of other bands, and fans, who came before them, and after them. The title, an obvious play on Bollywood, refers to the growing community of people in our city who sit outside the mainstream, from artists to theatre people, to yes, even those who (like Dadlani) work in film, but attempt to push creative boundaries. Conceptually, it seems similar to Correia’s other band, Shaa’ir + Func’s second album Light Tribe. While that album was a global celebration of the commonalities between the voice of the new urban India and their counterparts around the world, Bloodywood is rooted in Bombay and its people. “This album could have not come from anywhere else, no other set of four people in any other city or any county in the world could have said these things or meant these things the way we mean them,” said Dadlani.

You can hear the city in the primal grooves and thumping beats of “Mental Zero” and “In My Head” that are reminiscent of both the folk music of the region, as well as the everyday sounds of Mumbai, like the chugging of a suburban train. But Bloodywood also reminds us of plenty things that are wrong with our city. “Mental Zero”, is about the dumbing down of the media, “No 2 Ways” is about the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, “Nocturne” is about how we are not only the city that never sleeps but also the city that doesn’t let you sleep.

However, even with the reality checks—Bloodywood said Correia is about how “we don’t live in a fantasy world of cinema”—the overarching feeling of the record is that of hope and positivity, as heard on tracks like “Tomorrow’s Decided”, which urges you to “pick up the stone from the earth of your mind” to start what Dadlani calls a “mental revolution”. Even “Mental Zero” is “meant to be a positive song”, he said because “I believe people are smart, and that people are open and that they have an intrinsic understanding of real issues”. Already a big live favourite, “Mental Zero” has already proven one thing fairly resoundingly: that the appeal of Indian rock is not restricted to English-speaking, Westernised audiences. When Pentagram premiered the song at a concert at the Carter Road promenade in November 2009, the area near the stage was filled with kids residing in the slums nearby. The memory of that gig will go down as one of the greatest in Indian rock, just as Bloodywood is very likely to be remembered as one of the genre’s definitive albums in years to come.

Bloodywood will be launched at a concert by Pentagram at Hard Rock Cafe on Tuesday, March 22. See the top of the right-hand side of the page for listings details.