I fell immediately in love with Karsh Kale‘s first album, 2001’s Realize, on the first listen. It was one of those perfect music moments: I was alone doing yardwork on a beautiful day, popped that baby in my Discman, cranked it up, and its combination of Indian classical music, tasteful but not showoffy drum’n'bass, and pretty layers of ambient pop completely swallowed me up. I didn’t love 2002’s Redesign: Realize Remixed quite as much, but it proved that Kale was just as talented a composer as he was a programmer, drummer, tabla player, arranger, DJ, producer, and bandleader—and his participation in Tabla Beat Science’s live album last year made it the groundbreaking work it was.
So I guess I was overconfident this time. As soon as I got Liberation, I didn’t take any precautions—just slapped it on while I was driving to pick up my dad at his hotel, cranked it up, and expected to be carried away by the opening track. All the signifiers were there: pulsing synths, drones, mystical Carnatic vocals but then things went all strange on me. Instead of science-fiction Indio-Newyorkian philosophical club beauty, I was surprised to hear a cover of Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer”. What the holy hell kinda madness was this? God help me, if I have to hear anyone say he wants me to fuck him like an animal with an Indian accent .
Fortunately, it wasn’t really “Closer”. The band is locked into a very similar groove on Liberation‘s title track, but it stops reminding you of Reznormania after a minute or so, when Vishal Vaid’s multitracked male-vocal matrix is punctured by Falguni Shah’s beautiful alto wails, and the layers start to pile up: Kirk Douglas (no not that one) cranks it out on guitar somewhere in the background, Damon Banks’s bass bumps along on some kinda rhino tip, Sam Godin lays down about 50 different keyboard lines, Kale’s electronic percussion smashes up against his drum-kit beatings, and the vocals start to get more avant-garde. Oh, and then the Bollywood soundtrack orchestra kicks in. The track is now, by the way, at the 2:17 mark. And my eyes are rolled up in my head at the sheer loveliness and precision of it all.
This will give you some kind of indication of how this disc goes. Whereas Realize was just a Kale solo project with guests on it, Liberation features some configuration of the aforementioned musicians as a full band (confusingly named “Realize”) on almost every track. They are, of course, as tight as you might expect, but there is nothing static-seeming or pre-planned about any of these songs. “Instinct” begins like a Supertramp song from the Crime of the Century days, echoey electric piano and little xylophone things, but Shah’s ululations take it out of that territory real quick, and then the satisfying and easily-digestible beat leads us down a winding path, disappearing and reappearing like the memory of your first kiss. It’s all kind of Tangerine Dream before they started to suck, except techno-fied and world-musicked and rockish all at once. This song has a counterpart later in the record with “Dirty Fellow”, which starts out like it’s a loping disco Kraftwerk thingy, with Kale on vocoder singing about “Hey, Mr. DJ”, then turning more open and distinctive with some aggressively furious speed-tabla work from Kale and a Douglas morse-code guitar line that bounces off Godin’s booming Moog work.
Man, I’m a sucker for this stuff. I love it all. I love the identity crisis of “Analog Mood Swings” between Kale’s alien-invasion synths and Mukesh Sharma’s work on traditional sardo, like they’re all fighting against each other to see who really IS the soul of modern Indian music, only to find out that they sound great together. I love the hardcore dancefloor sockhop that is “GK2”—man, does this rock hard—and how it presents Lily Hayden’s violin line like an anniversary gift. And I love the way “Break of Dawn” takes forever to unfold, as if its secrets were too important to divulge; this is the album’s sexiest track, even with the goofy filtered vocals, and its chiming guitars and sansuri work by Ajay Prassana remind me of the theme from an international-sports-show that hasn’t been invented yet.
The addition of the Madras Chamber Orchestra on half of the album’s tracks is an especially inspired choice by Kale—this filmic touch deepens those songs without cheapening them. The album’s closing song, “Epic”, benefits especially from the orchestral overlay, turning a droney piece of desolation into a semi-dance track for which the Flaming Lips’s Wayne Coyne would give his left and right nuts.
But the track that uses it the most is the strange “Milan (Meeting of Two Rivers)”. This tune, named for Kale’s son, is a mini-Tabla Beat Science reunion: Bill Laswell is back on bass, Zakir Hussain is raving on the tabla, and Kale is putting down the kind of electronic beat you could find if you hit softball bleachers with your bat. This song never seems as long as its nearly nine minutes, most notably because just as it’s starting to get boring, this group bursts into a real melody, and then in ride the MCO to put it into “classic” territory. When the strings hit a rhythmic motif around six minutes that is then mirrored exactly by the rhythm section, it’s like the two rivers have indeed met, and my love has become lust. Light with heavy on top is a nice strategy, and it works all the way here.
This album might not be as “exciting” (because thrilling and new) as Kale’s debut, and there is a definite lack of great singer/songwriters Siddiqui Shah and Gigi on Liberation; Shah’s absence is especially hard because he was the only one singing in English and now I can’t understand anything. But I understand everything anyway, because all you need is a beating heart and working ears to be able to dig Kale’s act. He’s an ambitious man who now has a world-beating band. Everyone else in the world of music should be pretty scared right about now.