Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sounds familiar

album review

Band: Hoobastank
Album: Fight or Flight

If you ask someone to name a Hoobastank song, it is very likely that their answer will be 'The Reason'. It is also very likely that if you ask them to name another song by the band, they will be hard-pressed to come up with one more title. The alternative rock group saw massive success with the aforementioned song which served as the title track of their 2003 album, and have since struggled to match the appeal of this global hit; none of their subsequent songs have done nearly as well, and their albums have garnered a lukewarm reception.

Now, after parting ways with their record label and going down the independent route, the guys are back with their fifth studio album, Fight or Flight. Comprising of eleven tracks, the set sees them working with producer Gavin Brown. The content is still angst-ridden - there's talk about pain and conflict, both within and without - but musically it's simply alternative rock that caters to the fans of the genre with radio friendly rock anthems and tries to do little else.

Fight or Flight kicks off with one of the more gritty songs on the album, the first single 'This is Gonna Hurt'. The songs that follow are mostly not as hard-hitting. Some - like the melodious 'You Before Me', the heartfelt 'Magnolia', and the edgy 'No Win Situation' which seems reminiscent to their earlier material - stand out. Others take a few listens to make an impact.

The overall sense of the album, however, is that of familiarity. With Fight or Flight, the band isn't breaking any new ground. This is alternative rock by the numbers. In fact, some of this material is so tailor made for rock radio that it's hard to tell it apart and distinguish it from other modern rock staples. The band seems to have sunk into the safety of middle of the road alt rock; there is no sense of experimentation or attempts to further develop their sound, and missing is the energy and the heavier vibe that was promised by the lead single, 'This is Gonna Hurt', and which, when employed, easily makes this outfit more interesting.

Those who remember 'Crawling in the Dark' know the band entered the music scene with a lot of promise. And there's no denying that as vocalist and musicians, they're certainly a capable group. But as songwriters and composers, there's something to be desired. Hoobastank are not saying much here that they and their contemporaries haven't said before, and they aren't saying it very differently either or using a different musical canvas for their thoughts. That's not to say the songs on this album won't resonate with listeners; there are many out there who will relate to what the band is trying to express. But there isn't anything that sets this album apart musically or content-wise.

Still, the album is quite listenable, but while it may be an improvement on their recent releases, there is a sense that Fight or Flight could have been better. For casual listeners, there is no 'The Reason' here, and chances are that some of these tracks will struggle to keep you engaged. Fans will certainly find things to like about these songs, but this set isn't likely to win the band any converts.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 30th September, 2012

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Between synth and dance pop

album review

The Midsummer Station is a mostly sunny and upbeat record that tries so hard to blend into the commercial soundscape that it is easier to compare it to Katy Perry than The Postal Service

Artist: Owl City
Album: The Midsummer Station

Best known (and most detested) for deriving his sound from a much loved indie act, Adam Young has tasted both success and vitriol. When his divisive synthpop act Owl City made its major label debut in 2009 with Ocean Eyes, it didn't take listeners very long to notice just how similar his sound was to the dormant indie group The Postal Service, and how much it owed to the sonic canvas that had been crafted by Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello. Young's talent was evident, and his self-driven, almost one-man effort would have been commendable had it not been for the glaring lack of originality, plus it didn't help that the music he made was coupled with lyrics that, albeit imaginative and whimsical, were so high on the twee factor that they came off as more grating than charming. Before you knew it, Adam Young had been deemed a musical opportunist, and Owl City snubbed by naysayers as watered-down Postal Service on autotune sans sincerity.

But an artist doesn't need to be credible to be enjoyable, and a look at the charts will tell you that authenticity has very little to do with success. So while Young was busy getting “a thousand hugs from ten thousand lightning bugs”, his song 'Fireflies' was busy soaring up the charts and selling boatloads of copies. It might have been the worst nightmare for those who despise synthesized and overly autotuned music, but there was simply no escaping it.

Thus, for many, Owl City became a guilty pleasure, a sugary treat so overly saccharine that it risked causing diabetes. For others, Young's output wasn't so much sweet as it was cloying. Now, with his latest album, the musician has thrown himself headfirst into the mainstream, losing whatever little individuality he had managed to showcase in his previous records.

The Midsummer Station is a mostly sunny and upbeat record that tries so hard to blend into the commercial soundscape that it is easier to compare it to Katy Perry than The Postal Service. This compilation of fun electropop anthems is bright and optimistic for the most part, but also monochrome and repetitive. Songs like 'Shooting Star' and 'Dreams and Disasters' are oozing with optimism, and don't fall too far from Perry's 'Firework'. The album's highlight, however, isn't one of the generic pop flavored uplifters, but the somewhat edgier 'Dementia', which features Blink 182's Mark Hoppus, and sounds like something Hoppus' band mate Tom DeLonge would conjure up with Angels & Airwaves. Another notable song on the set is the piano led 'Silhouette' which turns down the cheer factor of the album to deliver an affecting ballad.

Many of the songs on the album, however, sound similar and unremarkable, which is why they ultimately fail to make an impact. Even the latest hit 'Good Time', his duet with 'Call Me Maybe' singer Carly Rae Jepsen, seems forced and bland. Something just doesn't work; it's all too generic and throwaway. As cheesy as it was, 'Fireflies' was at least memorable; a lot of the tracks on The Midsummer Station drown in the sea of generic dance pop and synthpop blandness. It isn't an appalling mess, and while it may get him some commercial success, it still doesn't seem like the best use of Adam Young's talent. Because the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who independently put together his initial work and famously experimented with music in his parents' basement is certainly capable of so much better than this. And we would be remiss to expect anything less from him.

- By Sameen Amer

 Instep, The News on Sunday - 23rd September, 2012

Sunday, September 09, 2012

“The journey is never ending and the sky is the limit.” - Junaid Khan


From singing in a rock band to dancing with Mathira at the Lux Style Awards, and collaborating with former Junoon bassist Brian O' Connell, Junaid Khan has no plans of slowing down. In an extensive interview with Instep, the singer-turned-actor talks acting, music, ambition for Bollywood and everything else in between

Remember Junaid Khan, the singer who channeled Chris Cornell almost as an art form in his early days of Call? Those were the days when Junaid was coming up as one of the new voices of rock music in Pakistan and 'Nishaan' gained the status of cult music. Those were the days of Jilawatan… songs like 'Nishaan, 'Pukaar', and newer singles such as 'Ho Jaane De' established him as one of the most commanding and cherished rock singers in the country.

Today, even as Junaid continues to make music with his band Call as well as a soloist, it's his jump into acting (like contemporaries Ali Zafar and Fawad Khan) that has set the ball rolling. Working with the likes of director Mehreen Jabbar and actors such as Sanam Saeed, Komal Rizvi among others, Junaid has quickly established himself as an actor to watch out for.

Earlier this year, Junaid danced alongside Mathira at the soon to be aired Lux Style Awards and managed to stun, thrill and surprise audiences across the board. His star power, it seems, is on the rise and Junaid has no plans of slowing down.

2012 has been a very productive year for him. After being a part of the entertainment world for nearly a decade, the singer-turned-actor has recently started exploring the different avenues of the industry, and has been a part of a steady stream of projects over the last few months, displaying his talent in singing, acting, and performing. “Being an artist, I wanted to explore all avenues and test my skills,” says the multi-talented entertainer. “I guess I got that creativity from my mother's side. She was a gold medalist in fine arts; hence I could sketch well too, then tested myself in music, and then had to challenge myself in the field of acting too. Now it's up to people to decide how I did in all the respective fields.”


We initially knew him as a singer, when he made his name as the lead vocalist of the band Call. But before he had established himself in the mainstream, Junaid had already had a taste of acting. “I started off in 2003, so I have been in the music field for approximately ten years,” recalls Junaid.

“Interestingly, before I was a musician, I did theater in university and also did a few festivals in Lahore, so I always had the taste for acting and performing arts. But after Call, I got occupied with music, and I was also completing my engineering and then later MBA at that time, so I wasn't able to find time to get into acting. But I did have it in mind that once I'll be able to find time and if I get a challenging character to test myself, I'll go for it.”

That chance eventually presented itself in the form of television serials. “I started off with Jawad Bashir's serials Kabhi Na Kabhi and Dil Ki Lagi, then did Mujhey Roothney Na Dena followed by Mata-e-Jaan, and now Yahan Piyar Nahin He. There's Madiha Maliha also coming up and the shoot for Qadoorat has just started; both are for Hum TV.”

He confesses that it's been smooth sailing for him as an actor, and he hasn't faced any difficulties in this field, but that he has learned something from every project. “The first one, Kabhi Na Kabhi, was challenging because it was my first play and I had less knowledge regarding the technicalities. But in terms of acting, I think the most challenging was Mata-e-Jaan because the character demanded more than hundred per cent and I had to give it my all if I wanted to make it convincing. As far as fulfillment is concerned, I would say Yahan Piyar Nahin He because that brought me to the masses.”

His latest project is Madiha Maliha. “There are two phases in the play,” Junaid explains. “Half of it revolves around my youth and half of it is about the post marital relations. The good thing about the play is that the characters are very real, and it is about the situations we face in daily life, hence people will relate to it. It has me, Zhalay Sarhadi, and Urwa Tul Wusqa as the leads, plus Badar Khalil is playing my mother. Badar auntie sure is an icon, and I had a fun time working with her; she brings the set to life.”

Junaid is also working on a new acting project. “The play that I am shooting right now is titled Qadoorat, which literally means “grudge”. I am playing the character Danial, and Moomal Sheikh and Sanam Saeed are playing opposite me. The cast also has Imran Aslam, Deepak Perwani, and Angeline Malik as the main characters. The project is being executed by Moomal Productions, and is being directed by Abis Raza whom I already worked with in my previous play Mujhey Roothney Na Dena. For a change, the character I am playing is very positive. I was requested by my fans a lot of times that I should end the streak of all the negative characters I played recently. Madiha Maliha is positive too, and so is Qadoorat.”

Junaid feels that the Pakistani television industry is “surely at the top these days” and that the Pakistani film industry is “actually coming out of that confusion stage”, with the leading directors of the country turning their focus towards the big screen. “I think the next few months will decide how this industry is going to progress, but I am really hopeful,” Junaid says. “And yes, I have yet to challenge myself on the big screen so that is on my mind for sure.” But it isn't just Lollywood that interests Junaid; he thinks our local talent should set their sights on global projects. “Bollywood is a leading entertainment industry. Not just Bollywood, Hollywood is something that we artists should be aiming at. Representing Pakistan across the globe should be our priority and every step on the way counts.” He says he is currently considering some Bollywood projects and will make an announcement as soon as they are finalized.


Acting isn't the only activity that is keeping Junaid occupied these days; he is also busy working on his debut solo album. “I am going song by song,” says the singer. “I'll be releasing them one by one as soon as I translate them from my heart on to a paper. 'Keh Do' is the second song from the album after 'So Close So Distant', and others will follow afterwards really soon. The album is being produced by Sami Khan, who has already proved himself with the band Lagan and also now as a solo artist and a producer. And I will be writing and composing most of the album.” That doesn't mean other artists won't be a part of the project. The first two songs from the album have seen the vocalist collaborate with American singer Jennifer Jandris and former Junoon bassist Brain O'Connell, and Junaid clearly appreciates the importance of working with other musicians. “There will be [more collaborations on the album] for sure. I am very keen to collaborate with other artists as music is a continuous journey and it becomes interesting when you get to work with talent from across the world. You get to learn a lot as an artist and share views, ideas, and processes, and hence gain knowledge, which I believe is continuous in our life. We should keep learning and I plan to do the same.”

And what will be the next offering from the as-yet-untitled album? After releasing two mellow songs in a row, the singer is planning to go back to his rock roots with his next release, and unleash a track that will “bring back [his] rock side”. The song is currently under production, and “it is going to be real heavy,” Junaid reveals.

No record labels are attached to the record as yet, and the singer says he thinks online distribution seems promising. “In Pakistan, the record label business isn't going so well, hence the online medium is more feasible and functional. Outside Pakistan, I have a few labels that I am in discussion with right now.”

Junaid hasn't done any gigs as a solo artist yet as he felt he hadn't released enough solo material to warrant a concert performance. “I have had offers after 'So Close So Distant',” he explains, “but I didn't go ahead with them as I wanted at least two of my originals out before I hit the stage solo. So after 'Keh Do's release I'll be ready to perform.” He thinks putting a band together for live shows won't be difficult because of the immense talent in the music industry. “Our country is full of talented musicians. In fact, it gets hard to decide who to work with considering the fact that we are loaded with experienced talent”.

Now that he has tasted solo success, how does he feel about working with a band? How does working solo compare to working with a group? “Well, performing on stage and the creative input that you share between band members is something that every artist loves to experience,” he says. “Solo experience is also quite interesting. An artist gets to use his own capabilities and the sound comes out unique but working in a band is also quite fun. I have enjoyed performing with the band throughout the past ten years, and every time we perform its like you become a new human being. The interaction between band members is quite fun.” As for Call's future, the singer won't reveal much. “Well, right now I am totally focused on my solo career while the other band members are occupied too with their respective projects,” he says.

And despite his many activates, Junaid assures us that he remains loyal to music. “Music is my passion and will always be my first priority,” he concedes. “Music is my way of expressing myself and that won't end for sure. Though both mediums [acting and music] have their own fun elements, but right now my solo album is my first priority, so you can say music is on my mind now.”


A concert stage isn't the only platform you can find Junaid on. He also performed a dance sequence at the Lux Style Awards! “That was quite interesting,” he laughs. “Quite new to me actually. I was given a chance to perform with the leading talent of our country. Using the stage in a different way was interesting for me. We had to do a dance sequence on a section which was done as a tribute to our legend Ahmed Rushdi. The performance had me, Faisal Qureshi, Ahsan Khan, Sana, Meera, and Mathira. It was a great experience. Faisal and Ahsan are already great friends and lovely people to work with whom I already had interaction with previously. The ladies were quite interesting to work with. I think out of the lot, Sana was the humble one.”

Junaid wasn't only a performer but also a nominee at the ceremony in both acting and music categories. “It felt great,” he says about being nominated. “To be able to get recognition in both the fields is a great, great feeling to have. Especially in the acting field in which I am relatively new and being nominated amongst the hotshots of this country was a great achievement for me. I believe a talent is motivated when it is recognized and rewarded, and fortunately and unfortunately we have just a couple of events happening which is not sufficient with respect to the immense talent pool we have. We need to have more talent shows and award functions to keep this industry rolling and motivated. The LSAs are, without a doubt, the best we have and it's still going strong everywhere. Credit goes to Frieha Altaf and her team for executing it and Unilever for financing it every year.”

Junaid clearly has a lot on his plate at the moment, and he aspires to do even more. “The journey is never ending and the sky is the limit,” he says. “I'll keep exploring myself and keep entertaining my fans in the various ways I can. Working for myself and representing my country in the best possible way is my ultimate goal, and I'll work accordingly.”

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 9th September, 2012

The Darkness return

album review

Hot Cakes is a set of eleven tracks that are mostly exuberant and upbeat, although the content is slightly more understated and restrained than the group's previous efforts

Band: The Darkness
Album: Hot Cakes

Even at the peak of their success, it was hard to figure out what to make of The Darkness. The band piqued the world's interest with what seemed like attempts to both revive glam and parody it, sometimes all within the course of the same track. They embraced the cliches and hedonism of the genre, donned spandex outfits, and unleashed a falsetto that could just as easily impress the listeners as give them a migraine.

Yet, it was impossible to deny that their music was fun. The energy the group gave off was contagious; their light hearted tunes were amusing; and their over the top act was entertaining, albeit unevenly so. And if the success of their multi-platinum debut album, Permission to Land (2003), was anything to go by, listeners were enjoying what The Darkness brought to the table. The novelty of this act might have started to wear off for the general audience by the time their sophomore effort, One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back (2005), hit the shelves, but the band had already managed to tag an audience that understood their shtick and was willing to go along with it. It was precisely this section of listeners that was disappointed when amid personal issues and struggles with drugs and alcohol, front man Justin Hawkins decided to quit the band, effectively marking the end of The Darkness.

After pursuing solo careers and other projects, none of which panned out quite the way the musicians would have wanted, the group members ultimately decided to rejoin forces and reform The Darkness last year. Now with their comeback album ready and released, the rockers are once again trying to get listeners grooving to their good time rock.

If you've ever heard anything by The Darkness then you already know what their new record sounds like. Hot Cakes, the band's first release in nearly seven years and their third studio album overall, is a set of eleven tracks that are mostly exuberant and upbeat, although their content is slightly more understated and restrained than the group's previous efforts.

The “Englishman with a very high voice, doing rock and roll” kicks off the album by reminding us that he is “in a band with my brother and my two best mates” in the unnecessarily crude album opener 'Every Inch of You', before unveiling catchy anthems like 'Nothin's Gonna Stop Us' and 'Everybody Have a Good Time' that give off their trademark enthusiasm. 'Living Each Day Blind' is proof that the group can still craft a rousing pop song. And there is a curveball in the form of an over the top metal cover of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)', which is equal parts spectacular and appalling.

There are guitar riffs aplenty and Hawkin's vocals are as piercing as ever, which is why the album reminds us how The Darkness made it big in the first place while also displaying their limitations. The songs aren't as immediate as their first album, but they grow on you with each listen. It is unlikely to get the band the same level of attention that Permission to Land did, but it will still give their fans a reason to enjoy themselves. While the songs may veer from arena rock anthems to uplifting mid-tempo ditties, the set is still held back by the very factors that make it what it is; there is an element of predictability and repetitiveness to it, which, however, is to be expected based on the band's sound. Because ultimately, Hot Cakes simply sounds like The Darkness. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You decide.

- By Sameen Amer

 Instep, The News on Sunday - 9th September, 2012

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

“Ali Azmat is more than a brother” - Brian O’Connell

interview: music mix

Brian O’Connell remembers Junoon and reveals what he’s up to now

Brian O’Connell’s name is firmly entrenched in the history of the Pakistani music industry. As a member of Junoon, the bassist helped define the sound of one of the most successful groups the country has ever seen. And while the band members may have since parted ways and Brian gone back to the US, he has left a lasting imprint on both our hearts and our musical palettes. Instep got a chance to talk to the celebrated musician about his activities since leaving Pakistan, and his recent collaboration with Junaid Khan…

Instep Today: Your fans and the Pakistani music industry have felt your absence since you went back to the US. What have you been up to since you left Pakistan?
Brian O’Connell:
I miss my fans in Pakistan too. Since moving back to New York, I have been focused primarily on teaching. I teach guitar, bass guitar, and music theory. I prefer to teach privately as opposed to a classroom setting because I can give my students one on one attention and tailor the lesson to their specific needs. I find that I am much more effective as a teacher in this situation, as opposed to the traditional classroom setting.
Being back here in New York has also given me the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. I continue to perform occasionally, but I live a relatively quiet life as compared to when Junoon was in its prime.

Instep Today: When you look back at your time with Junoon, how does that make you feel?
I feel truly blessed. Not many of us get the opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy by making a hobby and passion into a career. My journey with Junoon has provided the opportunity to convey a positive message of peace, faith, and love through an art form which we created as we went along, never realizing the extent of its audience.

Instep Today: Looking back, are you pleased with how things went? Would you have done anything differently?
I am more than pleased with how things went, until the end.
I would not have changed anything, except... allowing humility to be lost to the idea that the sum of Junoon’s parts could ever achieve what the whole did and can.

Instep Today: You’ve played bass on Junaid Khan’s new song ‘Keh Do’. How do you know Junaid? And how did you become involved in this project?
I played on this track to help a fellow artist and to give back in whatever small way I can to the people who have given so much to me. I honestly love the song and hope that I was able to bring some of my soul into it.
I came to know Junaid through a mutual friend. I was a bit familiar with Call’s music and respected them for bringing their art form to the music industry in Pakistan. However, I was not aware of Junaid’s ambition to create music on his own. Our friend QB passed the phone to me, saying “Here, talk to this guy. He wants you to record on his song.”

Instep Today: Junaid has mentioned that you needed a lot of convincing to get on board the project. Why were you reluctant at first? And what eventually made you change your mind?
I have been presented with this scenario often in the past and to be perfectly honest, I was rather reluctant to even take the phone. However, Junaid charmed me into it.

Instep Today: How does it feel to be working on a song with a Pakistani artist again?
Great. It feels like home!

Instep Today: Have you noticed any changes in the Pakistani music scene since you’ve been gone?
Indeed many more bands have come up and continue to inspire more artists to do the same. It is very unfortunate that the deteriorating political situation prevents these young artists from having the necessary platform needed to present themselves to an appreciating and desiring audience.

Instep Today: How does it feel to play with Ali Azmat when he tours the USA? Are you also in touch with Salman Ahmad?
I thoroughly enjoy myself on stage (and offstage) with Ali. Our relationship remains as it was since we both shared an apartment way back in the day. He is more than a brother. Salman and I go even further back where it all began for us, in our hometown Tappan, NY. Life’s journeys often resemble circles.

Instep Today: What do you miss the most about Pakistan?
My dear friends, the people, the culture, and cheap Dal Mash from dirty Garib Nawaz hotel in Gizri.

Instep Today: When was the last time you visited Pakistan? And is there anything that would bring you back to the country?
I was last there in 2007. And just about anything would bring me back.

Instep Today: Will we hear more music from you in the future?
As long as there is a song in my heart, my gift will be given.

Instep Today: Any message for your fans?
I thank you, miss you, and will surely meet many of you as our paths cross in this journey. May God bless each one of you! With my deepest love and gratitude, Brian.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 5th September, 2012

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Slicker than your average

album review

Conor Maynard's Contrast is a compilation of a dozen pieces of slick urban pop and electronic R&B

Artist: Conor Maynard
Album: Contrast

It is really hard not to compare Conor Maynard to Justin Bieber, even though this isn’t a comparison the 19-year-old British singer is particularly pleased with. Like Bieber, Maynard is young; became a YouTube sensation after posting covers on the website; got noticed by an established R&B singer (Ne-Yo); and has built a massive fanbase.

In terms of music though, a more apt comparison can be made to a different Justin – Justin Timberlake. Listen to his debut album, Contrast, and you’ll see that the teen popstar is drawing inspiration from the solo work of the former *Nsync singer.

The first two singles – ‘Can’t Say No’ and ‘Vegas Girl’ – are pretty accurate indicators of what the album has to offer. Contrast is a compilation of a dozen pieces of slick urban pop and electronic R&B; it’s derivative and processed, but undoubtedly catchy. Content wise, the album doesn’t shy away from being cheesy, and the lyrics of Maynard’s songs aren’t as innocent as his looks. It is fairly obvious from the get go that the young singer has a thing for “girls, girls, girls” and really wants the world to know it.

Maynard has worked with producers including The Invisible Men, The Arcade, Benny Blanco, and Pharrell Williams on the set, and stars like Ne-Yo and Pharrell are also on hand as featured artists to add some credibility to the effort, as is newcomer Rita Ora (who has also just made her debut album). Ney-Yo lends vocals to the second track (and third single) of the album, ‘Turn Around’; it is a fairly standard song, and perhaps one of the less interesting tracks on Contrast. Pharrell’s contributions, on the other hand, particularly stand out; the two songs where he takes the production reins – ‘Lift Off’ (on which he is also featured) and ‘Glass Girl’ – are immediately evocative of The Neptunes producer’s work. Although that, perhaps, is also an indication of the material’s shortfall – it’s hard to tell whether the character of the album comes from the singer or his many collaborators; at times it feels like the record says more about the collaborators than it does about the artist whose name graces its cover.

So while the singer’s identity might be overshadowed by the people he is working with and his persona might not be entirely convincing, the album is still well tailored for the pop market. The material isn’t deep and it lacks substance, but it is aware of the audience it’s targeting. The album is very contemporary, and blends the current urban and dance pop trends, using slick production to create the sound that fits the current market. It’s smart in a commercial sense; some of the songs do fail to stand out, but if you are into this kind of music, then most of the album will work for you. Yes, it’s safe and unoriginal and doesn’t have much to offer that distinguishes it from other similar R&B and electropop offerings, but the occasional shades of Justin Timberlake and sometimes even Michael Jackson you hear in the songs aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe with his next album, Maynard can actually develop his sound and come into his own.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 2nd September, 2012