A Passage From India

An introduction to Mumbai’s Paradigm Shift

This year’s prog season is up and running in earnest now. Beardfish, Neal Morse and Steven Wilson have all recently released stellar albums that have imposed themselves on my life. As if that were not enough, I have also recently been immersed in the music of Paradigm Shift, a progressive fusion band from Mumbai. A chance encounter a few months ago reminded me of their debut album, released almost three years ago. An assured and eclectic debut, Coalescence is statement from a band that promises a lot, and regularly delivers on that promise.

Their language of choice is Hindi, and, after listening to Coalescence, it is clear that that was a necessary move. In not allowing myself to be put off by less-than-stellar lyrics, I feel like I have benefited greatly in my musical explorations, both within as well as beyond prog. I tend to consider vocalists as primary contribution to be melodic and harmonic, with lyrical content often relegated to the background. As a result, I am just as happy to bob my head to ‘There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag/He used to be a British flag’, as Clearly God doesn’t love me/So I’ll just wait outside' orNow wait a minute man/That’s not how it is/You must be confused/That isn’t who I am’. The sentiments being expressed are secondary to the sounds of the words; that’s one reason I am drawn to Jon Anderson’s lyrics, for example. What this means is that when listening to music sung in a language other than English, I usually focus on the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of the language, something that is especially interesting in the case of Paradigm Shift.

What really stands out for me when listening to Paradigm Shift is how Hindi lends itself to a certain style of vocal delivery which is simply not possible in English. Vocal melodies typically consist of a sequence of five or six long, notes, often sustained on a consonant, something which is extremely awkward in English. This comes into stark focus on the song Dhuaan, whose verse is sung in English. The ease and assuredness of Kaushik Ramachandran’s vocals are conspicuous in their absence. It is only once Nikhil Nadakumar’s ubiquitous violin makes its first appearance that the song regains its footing. On songs sung more naturally in Hindi, Ramachandran is very quickly able to take the listener along with him as he soars above the frenetic violin and alternately soporific and hyperactive guitars.

As Mel Brooks famously said, ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’. Nandakumar plays Indian-style violin, and this is most certainly flaunted at every opportunity- the violin dominates the album almost as must as Roine Stolt’s guitar dominates a standard Flower King’s album. This is, of course, part of the band’s appeal, and, to be fair, this usually makes for compelling listening. Particularly memorable are the hyperactive tremolo of Tere Liye_ and the almost devotional sounding interlude in the album opener, Khwabon Mein Teri._

All of this lies on a bedrock of solid, heavily distorted guitars. Unlike The Down Troddence, Paradigm Shift approaches fusion as a juxtaposition, rather than amalgamation. Which means that, absent the vocals and violin, the band would have fallen squarely in the genre of metal. Of course, the violin is virtually never absent, and the band is, undoubtedly all the better for it.

There is a sense of almost forced eclecticism on Coalescence, even by the standards of prog rock. It would not surprise me if a sense of fatigue sets in by the time the listener reaches the djent-raga closer Batlaado. But that is not intended as criticism- there is a spark and a sense of magic that pervades this album, exalting several passages, and demanding a real commitment from the listener.

Like Skyharbor and Coshish who used this technique to varying degrees of success, Paradigm Shift chose to end their album with the two heaviest songs. Dhuaan and Batlaado feature arguably the tightest instrumental performances on the album. They do what any good closing section of an album usually does- leave the listener with an urge to hit the play button once more.

The band recently played to a packed audience at IIT Gwalior (continuing the tradition of bands being supported by the network of engineering colleges around the country, a theme to which I shall return in a future installment of Passage From India). That music such as this has started to find devoted live audience in India is extremely heartening, and a far cry from the not-too-distant past when bands routinely had to deal with audiences heckling them for playing original music. Long may this upswing continue.