Bands, despite their popularity in national circuits, often face the music

On a weekend afternoon in 2004, the residents of a narrow lane in Karamana with closely packed houses woke up with a start from their siesta. The sounds of some distorted guitar and the pounding drums, alien to their ears till then, conjured up visions of apocalypse in their minds.

“We need to sleep. What is all this noise?” said one of them, pounding on the doors of the house’s garage, the source of the sound. “Sorry uncle, we will reduce the volume,” the vocalist, growling menacing lyrics till that point, replied meekly.

The scene was the first practice session of the city-based thrash metal band ‘Chaos,’ which recently won the Best Metal Artiste award at the Radio City music awards in Mumbai and has been nominated for the VH1 music awards, for their debut album ‘Violent Redemption.’ But despite the popularity in the nationwide rock circuits, they are hardly recognised back home and neighbours are up in arms in whichever place they get together to jam.

Almost all the bands that have been part of the city’s rock scene, dating back to more than four decades, have similar stories to tell. In a conservative society where black tees and long locks are still frowned upon, thanks in no small measure to Malayalam cinema which has mostly demonised them, the rock community here has remained an ‘underground phenomenon’ even considering the recent popularity of alternative Malayalam rock music. But, the existence of a close-knit die-hard fan base, which has organically regenerated itself over the years, has meant that there have been at least a handful of active bands in the city at any point of time, albeit in different genres.

The earliest tryst that the city had with rock music was sometime in the 1970s with bands such as Bahn Kruger, formed by Nandu Leo who is still active in the scene.

“The bands here used to play covers of the hard rock songs of that time, of bands such as Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and Motorhead. Most of it is considered classic rock now. Some of us used to play music in cabaret clubs in Kovalam,” says ‘Blues’ Johny, a popular blues guitarist who has been a member of several bands over the years. In the 1980s, the coming of cassettes and vinyl records, tucked away in the briefcases of Gulf-returnees, and rock music programmes in some overseas radio stations, led to a churn which produced more bands such as Indus Valley Civilisation and Copper. The heads of those cassettes were worn out before long as the upcoming musicians played and rewound it to catch the intricacies of every note.

“A collective called ‘Beatroot Circle’ was formed, comprising band members as well as non-musicians, who organised shows at venues such as VJT Hall and Tagore Theatre,” says Harry, drummer of Indus Valley Civilisation and Copper, who is now a television technician.

Tony John, vocalist of Avial, a school student then, has vivid memories of watching gigs at a filled-to-the-brim VJT Hall. That led him to form the band ‘Karizma’ in 1990.

“We had two major rock festivals back then. The ‘Trip’ festival at Kovalam, organised by two brothers, had bands from outside too performing. Then there was the five-day rock festival at VJT Hall during Onam, thanks to a serious rock fan in the Tourism Department. But it all died out completely by 1995, ironically coinciding with the arrival of MTV. Even the bands disappeared with the members moving out for jobs,” says Tony.

New millennium

The scene stayed dormant till the turn of the millennium, when it got an infusion of heavy metal by a combination of several factors — the spread of private engineering colleges from where most of these bands originated, the internet which led to easy availability of songs and tablatures, and the increasing popularity of original music from Indian bands.

The earliest of those bands were ‘Transmigration’ and ‘Rage,’ which played pitch-perfect covers of bands such as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and Slayer, thus inspiring a generation of ‘metalheads’ in the city. By 2006, the city had more than ten metal bands, the prominent among them being ‘Chaos,’ ‘Soulburn,’ ‘Overdrive,’ ‘Stoneage,’ and ‘Xitropy.’ Nithin Vijayanath, the guitarist of ‘Rage,’ inadvertently played a part in this metal mayhem, being the guru for most of these guitarists.

The scene was sustained during this time by the surfeit of rock music competitions held as part of the annual cultural festivals of the private engineering colleges. The crowds at these concerts were mostly the young college students and some odd veteran rockers.

In 2008, ‘Purple Blood,’ a metal band, went on to win a prestigious rock competition at IIT Chennai. But in a repetition of the 1990s lull, the bands all disintegrated with members moving out to cities such as Bangalore for jobs. A few like ‘Chaos’ kept themselves alive. These bands, unlike those which play in hotels, have only the album sales and concert payments to sustain themselves with.

Little appreciation

“It is hard to sustain a band here with the kind of attitude the general public has towards it. There is a tendency to dismiss it all as loud music without bothering to understand the nuances and the effort that goes behind this. The sales of our album have been mostly outside the State and overseas. The bands which are releasing the albums fund it themselves as no one is ready to invest,” says Jayakrishnan, the vocalist of Chaos, who has a day job as a marketing professional.

The past two years have witnessed some resurgence, this time shifting towards alternative Malayalam rock, pioneered by Avial way back in 2001. A slew of bands like ‘Pathayam,’ ‘Vidwan,’ and ‘Kolam’ were formed, whose influence seeped into Malayalam film music too. But the number of concerts has dwindled for local bands, with most of the college festivals now roping in bands from other cities, thanks to the mammoth budgets commissioned by the administrations. As the cycle continues, all the lay listener has to do is to keep their ears and minds open for new bands and new sounds.