A Passage From India

This week Tushar introduces us to Mumbai based prog metal/drone act Pangea…

Here is a harsh but well known truth. Prog isn’t cool. Steven Wilson may be at the top of his game right now, selling out shows at the Royal Albert Hall and seeing his face plastered on advertisements in tube stations. Muse and Mastodon might have claims to being simultaneously hugely popular and `having progressive elements in their music’. The genre might even boast bands like Von Hertzen Brothers whose brand of progressive hard rock should be selling out stadiums. But to the average music fan, prog is still that abstruse, pompous and over-the-top music that was popular in the seventies and then died. It’s got all the obscurity of jazz with none of the intellectual street cred.

But even within this fringe genre, there is a subgenre which only rarely enters the collective consciousness- instrumental prog. Barely a handful of instrumental bands ever come up in discussions and articles on prog. One reason is obvious - live performances without a designated vocalist to interact verbally with the crowd are risky. It is very difficult to connect to a live audience without speaking to them (unless you’re King Crimson). And this attracts a quite different and considerably smaller crowd from your average prog show.

Instrumental prog further distils the audience, which is already skewed in favour of musicians. At the most recent Aristocrats show in London, bass player Bryan Beller asked how many audience members were themselves musicians, and was hard pressed to find someone without a raised hand. I doubt anyone was surprised.

More importantly, however, eschewing vocals also upsets a balance in rock music to which we have grown accustomed since its inception. And this is quite apart from the role that lyrics play in music- it is about the harmonic and melodic role the voice plays as an instrument. While an instrumental section in, for example, a Dream Theater song is traditionally the most exciting part, taking it out of the context of a complete song often renders it flat (within the Dream Theater canon, the instrumental sections of The Ministry Of Lost Souls and Endless Sacrifice taken in isolation are good examples of this phenomenon). Something needs to be introduced to compensate. And that is what makes or breaks an instrumental band and distinguishes the good bands from the ones which merely sound like the backing band for a vocalist who did not show up.

Pangea, a band from Mumbai, classify themselves as instrumental/prog metal/soundtrack/drone. It is that ambient/drone element which sets them apart from the crowd. But make no mistake, Pangea is heavy; the guitars sound massive, the drums and bass tight and compressed. Formed in 2007, by Scribe guitarist Akshay Rajpurohit, Pangea released their cryptically titled debut album Snails Are When I Was Young in 2011. It is available on their bandcamp page as a ‘name your price’ download, and is well worth the time.

Comprising seven short-to-even-shorter songs, it is a lean, tight piece of work. That it clocks in at under half an hour only adds to the feeling of conciseness of the album. Snails… is sandwiched by drone-heavy pieces Hearing Sparks Rumour and Final Flight. The intervening five songs show a wide range of ideas, from straight up brutal riffs to more contemplative and lyrical interplays between guitars and synths. To compare the band’s sound to other bands is to do a bit of a disservice, but it also serves to orient the uninitiated listener. There are aspects of Scale The Summit in the melodies, modern Tony MacAlpine and Chimp Spanner in the extended-range riffs, while some of the mellow, synth driven sections bring to mind Animals as Leaders.

If you are not already into instrumental prog, then Pangea is unlikely to be your gateway drug. It is not an accident that, in drawing comparisons to other bands, I only listed other instrumental prog bands. This is certainly music for the initiated, if not quite music for musicians. When one is sensitive to the tropes of the sub genre that Pangea plays with, it is clear that Rajpurohit and co. bring something fresh and exciting to the genre.