Music

Fareed Haque + The Flat Earth Ensemble: Flat Planet

Haque's heritage and education certainly help him in creating a signature blend, but the album is simply too long for its own good.


Fareed Haque + The Flat Earth Ensemble

Flat Planet

Contributors: Fareed Haque
Label: Owl Studios
US Release Date: 2009-03-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
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With the number of hybrids combining Indian classical music and jazz, it is becoming one of those things that makes an artist seem a lot more musically intelligent than they actually are. At this point, the fusion is nothing revolutionary. Trilok Gurtu has combined tabla technique and jazz percussion into his drumming for years. Fareed Haque does, however, have something to add to this mix. His Pakistani heritage and education allows him to be equally versed in the music of the Indian subcontinent and jazz. Thus, Flat Planet offers a more saturated fusion of these two genres, as Haque's well-rooted knowledge allows him to experiment with new rhythms and melodies.

In most decent jazz albums, every instrumentalist demonstrates a proficient level of technicality throughout, and Fareed Haque and the Flat Earth Ensemble are no exception. Haque's guitar schools are nothing short of virtuosic, but he never puts himself too far in the forefront that his solos become egotistical. And as “Big Bhangra” demonstrates, he possesses the sensitivity to build into his more technical moments, using space in the way that Miles Davis so immortalized. Despite putting his name in front of the Flat Earth Ensemble, the group sounds very cohesive and on equal standing with each other. It just so happens that Haque wrote most of these songs.

Rhythmically, the album is very complex. While most Indian-jazz fusions like to rely on the mix of 4/4 Indian grooves and instrumental virtuosity, Haque decides to play with time signature and syncopation. Haque composed “Uneven Mantra” entirely in 7/8, which, in contrast to his contemporaries, takes a jazz groove and puts Eastern modal melodies and accents over top of it. “32 Taxis” is, according to Haque's album notes, an invention in the studio based on the rhythm cycle created by kanjira player Ganesh Kumar. Anyone who has participated in a drumline of some sort will probably have played through a similar rhythm cycle, but Haque layers himself on acoustic and electric guitar making music out of the otherwise rudimentary rhythm.

With technical, inventive solos and rhythmically complex songs, Haque has formed a basis for a great fusion album. What pulls the album down is its length. It plays for an hour and fifteen minutes and includes three out of four movements of Haque's The Four Corner Suite. It ends the album on a confusing note because the suite does not fit the style of the rest of the album. Introducing a decidedly more jazzy sound, including saxophone, that just happens to have tabla behind it, the suite could easily have stood, in its entirety, as its own release. Three of the songs exceed ten minutes without once changing the groove, and the chord progressions are not interesting enough to sustain themselves for such a length. The longest song, “Fur Peace” is a meditative almost-ballad that probably could have lost four minutes without losing any real substance.

Thus, it is the shorter tracks that really make the statements. “Bengali Bud” shows off all of Haque's technical capabilities in a smooth five minutes and features Indrajit Banerjee on sitar, who often doubles Haque's lines. The song is almost strictly classical Indian, as the only percussion is tabla, and the only Western instrument is Haque's guitar, which plays Eastern modes anyway. “Blu Hindoo” does the opposite. It is almost entirely jazz in groove and structure, except the melodies and sometimes the rhythmic accents draw from the Indian spectrum. The extreme length of the longer songs is truly unfortunate because all of them have excellent foundations that would have been the standout tracks at shorter lengths.

Fareed Haque and the Flat Earth Ensemble certainly perform music with a focused, impressive blend of jazz and Indian music, but the album perhaps gets too narcissistic for its own good. Sure, Haque gives everyone a chance to show their talent, but the listener will not necessarily sit through five minutes of the same person soloing. For anyone interested in the blend of jazz and Indian music, however, Fareed Haque is someone worth checking out.

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Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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