Review Summary: Music with a capital "M"
Indian rock and metal seem poised on the verge of breaking out to a global audience thanks in no small part to Skyharbor. However, the Indian rock scene is, to a large extent, afflicted with the same problems that Skyharbor is. The musicians may be excellent, and the music may be good, but there is rarely anything truly original about it. But every once in a while, a band like Motherjane, and now Agam, comes along with a truly unique sound and manages to find a happy middle ground between the familiar and the original. Agam owes a sizeable debt to Dream Theater, but they use this influence to inform rather than confine their musical aspirations. The confluence between the precise and mind-bending rhythmic and melodic schemes of Carnatic music and Dream Theater's brand of virtuosic progressive metal is an obvious one, but it takes great daring and talent to fuse the two effectively. Agam shows, over the course of the six tracks here, that they are up to the task.
The first thing you will notice about 'The inner self awakes' is that the vocals and not the instruments are the focus of the songs. All six tracks here are tightly composed and constructed and there is very little in the way of instrumental wankery, despite the obvious abilities of the musicians in the band. This is not to say that there are no instrumental solos; there are plenty. However, the band shows great maturity and restraint in using these sections as segues rather than centerpieces, setting the mood and dynamics rather than vying for attention. The band plays as an ensemble and the interplay between violin, keys, percussion and guitar on album opener "Brahma's Dance" is quite glorious.
While the guitars play a more supporting role on the album bookends, "Brahma's Dance" and "Malhar Jam", the middle 2/3's of the album feature the guitar playing a central role in the songs, with the riffs driving the songs. The first two songs are fairly mellow in their instrumentation, but starting with the appropriately agressively-titled "Rudra" the band has a distinctly metallic approach to their compositions. However, there are no sweeps, tremolo runs or "chugga-chugga" riffs. Most of the guitar solos are performed in the traditional glissando-esque style, which has also been a feature of Motherjane's music, and the riffs follow very precise rhythmic and melodic patterns. Despite this perceived limitation of style, the guitar solos rarely get predictable or boring.
One notable aspect of the music is that the percussion is dominated by traditional indian instruments, such as the Chenda (which sounds approximately like a snare drum and plays a similar role here) and the distinctive Ghatam, which is nothing more than an earthen pot played with the fingers. While the keyboards are perhaps the most conventional instrument on the album, the percussion is the least traditional, and provides a nice juxtaposition of aesthetics with the other instruments. The keyboards play a very understated role, providing atmosphere and emphasis where necessary, and are the most tangible link between the Indian and Western elements in the music. There is little in the way of Jordan Rudess-style solos and the solos which do occur are played in conjunction with the guitar or violin, so keyboard aficionádos are likely to be disappointed. Even the bass gets to shine at various points in the album with a few unhindered runs.
One potentially off-putting aspect of the music is that the vocals, which have center stage most of the time, are performed in a very traditional style with little, if any, concession to popular appeal. The lyrics are usually based on sanskrit verses, with occasional hindi and tamil thrown in for good measure. However, there is little in the vocals, and really any of the music, that would draw in a casual music fan. This approach is in stark contrast to folk-music influenced bands like Avial or Indian Ocean who manage to combine local languages with melodies that are memorable to practically anyone. This drawback is somewhat offset by the compositional tightness of the songs. None of the sections, vocal or instrumental, outstay their welcome and there is enough change and dynamic momentum to keep the songs flowing, even if the sections themselves aren't particularly memorable.
Overall, this is a finely crafted album, showcasing a daring young band tackling a very challenging genre of music and managing to master it. Every song is thoughtfully constructed and impeccably performed. The music and execution comes off as a little TOO clinically precise and efficient sometimes, and the only conventional 'soul' to be seen is in the vocals. But, I doubt that the people this album aims to please will care about that too much. It's a rare album whose only major drawback is its brevity. This is a very short album, with only six tracks, and none of them with the kind of epic scope that you would expect from a progressive rock band. But, the band trades meandering instrumental interludes for concise and fat-free compositions and we're all the better for it.