When I first popped this disc into my car stereo, I thought, "Oh, god". DJ Pathaan's latest in his ongoing series of mix CDs for his own Stoned Asia label starts with an ambient Bollywood-style track so insipid it makes Celine Dion sound like Tom Waits by comparison. I know as a sensitive music critic it's bad form to slag the sounds of other cultures, but I gotta think that even most folks in India and Pakistan would choke on the saccharine flutes and strummed guitars of Abhijit Pohankar's "Piya Bavari".
Thank goodness for me and Pathaan both, the rest of his mix is much better, building from more ambient sounds into some breakbeat and trip-hop territory and finally a series of full-throttle dance tracks that pretty much kick the ass of most of the western house and techno plodding along out there on tired old formulas. Given the many years the Asian Underground movement has spent noodling around in arty drum 'n' bass and mid-tempo territory, it's thrilling to hear the lush orchestration and exotic chord progressions of this British-based east-west fusion finally getting a little punchier on tracks like Jean Claude Maurice's "My Maya" and especially DJ Fex's ultra-groovy "Indie Walk".
But I'm an old househead, so maybe that's just me. Hardcore fans of classic Asian Underground will find much to enjoy here, as well, although to my ear the only truly track that measures up to the genre's best is "All Beautiful Machines", a cumin-flavored trip-hop joint with a simple yet irresistible groove from New York-based producer Zeb, a.k.a. the Spy From Cairo (who gets bonus points for having the best name on this collection). Less compelling but still worth an agreeable head-bob or two are Kaya Project's "Walking Through", which embellishes a simple, mid-tempo breakbeat with minimalist tabla work, guitar, strings and trippy vocal samples; the Dum Dum Project's "Greetings", which mashes up Indian, British and Jamaican sounds with rasta and Hindi vocals and a beat somewhere between reggae and two-step; and Ikarus' "Touched the Sun", a cinematic track with choral chants and thick synth stabs drifting in and out over a very Thievery Corporation blend of haunting strings and chilled beats. It's good news for Stoned Asia that all of the tracks I just mentioned are exclusive to this mix; they're among the compilation's best.
Other tracks like Lumo's "Seven Minutes of Sun" and Chiller Twist's "Strings Unlimited" suffer from a flaw that's regrettably common to Asian Underground (and, to be fair, many styles of electronic and sample-based music): They're nice grooves that never go anywhere. The compilation's biggest name, British-Indian hip-hop pioneer Fun-Da-Mental, gets bogged down for similar reasons on "The Last Gospel", thanks to a remix by Juttla that employs a drum 'n' bass backbeat too lifeless to keep up with the track's whacked-out vocals.
After this disappointment, however, we get three swift smacks in the bindi from Pathaan's three best tracks, served up back-to-back. Jean Claude Maurice's "My Maya" is the crowd-pleaser, an unpretentious fusion of bellydancer beats, Bollywood vocals, and house's thumping basslines and snappy high-hats. From this hip-shaking combination it's a smooth segue into DJ Fex's "Indie Walk", which also sounds equal parts Indian and Middle Eastern as its shuffles a trippy blend of exotic sounds over more house rhythms. After this comes the mind-blower: Pathaan's own remix of legendary Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu's "Future Heat". Good lord if only all Asian Underground tracks rocked half this hard: Punishing loops of Gurtu's frenetic drumming and scat-sung "taks" pound the living crap out of a lunatic acid synth line and a haunting female chant, all collectively building into something you could probably only dance to by spinning in circles.
World Peace ends with an Asian/dub head-bobber from Cosmic Rocker called "Sandblasted" -- too stoned for my taste, but not a bad comedown after the frenzy of "Furture Heat". I could sum DJ Pathaan's latest in much the same way -- a little too laid-back, but not a bad compilation. And worth owning, unless you want to wait for Pathaan's debut under his Orchestral World Groove moniker, for "Future Heat" alone.