This duo from New Delhi is out to prove that there is more to Indian techno than just bhangra and electro-tabla whiz Karsh Kale. Ultimately, they do prove that, but not convincingly enough for me to put any money on it. This is a really great debut album that is hampered by being just a little too safe, just a fraction too respectful of Kale and of bhangra and of techno and of Indian pop and folk music.
This is the first full-length record by the PunditZ, who are Guarav Raina and Tapan Raj. They've come out with plenty of singles and remixes in the last few years. Their version of Kale's "Home" was one of the highlights of the Redefine: Realize Remixed album; they also had a featured spot on the Tabla Beat Science Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove, which I've already gushed about to an embarrassing degree in these pages. So you'd expect me to fall hard and often for the Punditz' first album on their own.
And I'll just say here that if anything could make me do that, it would be "Air", the first track on the disc. I don't think they're alluding to the French techno-chill duo with this title, but rather to the ambience and feel of their own home. Lovely chanting, strange ringing harp-like tones, and a slowish soft martial beat provide the backdrop for a haunting flute melody for the first 2-1/2 minutes of the piece. Then a complex and funky mid-tempo beat with an asthmatic wheeze built in on the three-count kicks in and turns it into something else entirely -- an homage to Delhi full of all its varied flavor.
This is the same approach taken by "Far From Home", except that the latter has a lot more alien-abduction noises affixed to it and some IDM/breakbeat funk to go with all the Indianisme. The template is applied again on the Kale-fortified "Forest Dreams" (yeah, it's a little new-agey, deal with it), a fourth time on "God of Love", except with a rabab hook that will absolutely floor you and some nice two-steppy drums, a fifth with album closer "Dark Age," and I might have forgotten a couple of those in the middle. Too many of the Punditz' tracks take this basic formula (which, after Realize, is owned by Karsh Kale) without changing it very much, and therein lies this LP's big flaw -- failure to risk failure. Too safe, too close to the vest, easy to like but hard to love.
Which is not to say that they don't absolutely kick out the jams a few times. "Extasis" comes charging right out of the gate with hard beats to go with the floaty synths, in a wonderful stringed-instrument-of-some-kind concerto. There are so many layers here that it's hard to hear any change or movement in the song until listen #4, when it all becomes clear that this is one of the best Indian-flavored dance tracks ever recorded. "Fabric" manages to skirt Cliché City, as does the straight-ahead dance floor siren song called "Insite". None of these are revolutionary or "out" in the least, but they are bangin' enough that they break up the stretches of nice cautious stuff.
The biggest departure on the record is "Bhangra Fever". This piece pays tribute to the popular dhol-driven dance music, and it hits just the right notes. It's got big dhol hits, great "Hey! Hey!" backing vocals, and a few hooks you're not going to hear anything better than this year. But it's not slavish bhangra-love, either; the drumbeats multiply until we're really talking about drum'n'bass, and there are a couple breakdowns that one would just never hear on Bhangra Beatz. And then, of course, we also get the vocal sample from Ajay Naidu, informing us that New York and Bombay are "grids" and that London, Chicago, and Delhi all "swing." No idea what it means (is this William Gibson time or something?), but it's a cool way to keep the track focused on its meaning: to swing and not get caught in the grid. "Bhangra Fever" is a bold statement on what turns out to be a pretty but cautious LP.
Cautious doesn't always mean bad. In fact, "tasteful" is probably a better word than "cautious" for the impression that this album makes. But I think it's pretty clear that the MIDIval PunditZ need to move further afield with their next move, or they'll just sound like a Karsh Kale tribute band.