“We’re very proud of it. Not least because, for the past few years, life hasn’t been particularly easy for us, and our music reflects our state of mind. There were these moments when we presumed we had lost our sense of celebration, and would just be stuck in these gloomy, lamenting and inevitably stale passages of harmony. So it came as a relief, and a reset.”
The above quote is taken from a blog post from 6LA8, the Karachi based duo of Omer Asim and Taimur Mazhar Sheikh, that charts the making of ‘Budget Cuts’, released February 2015, marking the 21st(!) release from the band. As suggested by the name, the album is made almost entirely of guitars and free sample sounds, but rather than being a limiting factor, this provides a colourful palette and gigantic canvas for them to paint on.
And while the album starts off slowly, in a stale post-rock way, it really kicks off from ‘Dealings at Dhabbey’s’, where an upbeat tabla sample is covered by a somewhat clumsy and bumbling guitar riff. The result is infectious and endearing. In fact, many of the guitar sounds on the album sound improvised: the riffs are simple and basic, and the leads are meandering and uncertain. Rarely do the solos amount to some big climactic peak, but rather they show up here and there as little interesting accents.
In other instances, the duo use the sounds available to them to construct elaborate soundscapes that are simultaneously dissonant but beautiful. Take ‘Empty Flies, Hungry Stomachs’, which is a hilariously literal song title, as a distorted guitar feedback sounds eerily similar to buzzing flies and the background drone is familiar to anyone with a complaining gut. But while this kind of thing can be gimmicky – that concept track you always skip over – this is nonetheless evocative and weirdly beautiful to listen to.
And this kind of sound seems to come easily to 6LA8. ‘Tanweem in April’, for instance, featuring Ramsha, a fellow experimental artist from the Karachi scene, manages exactly the same feat. The drone and lead guitar, along with a restrained tabla, create a texture and an atmosphere that you can sink into.
The duo are certainly at their best when their work is focused and maintains a measure of clarity. ‘Sardard Sardard Sardard’ tells of ‘menacing underhanded social politics’, and the political commentary is easy to hear, and gives them something concrete to formulate concepts around. There are times on the record when this clarity occasionally gets muddied; ‘The Cool White Cat & Her Gaslighting…’, for instance, or ‘Stock Exchange Woes’, which, although also political, has none of the bite or substance of ‘Sardard’.
But this is an album that generously rewards repeat listens, when certain elements begin to unwrap and you hear things that you didn’t notice the first time around. How about those horns on ‘Without a Paddle’ (with Rija Yousuf), or the amazing almost house-like beat of ‘The Tabla Delusion’ (probably my favourite track), or the restrained use of glitch and pitch manipulation in ‘Absent Inflections’ (with Asfandyar Khan aka TMPST and Peppermint Sky).
There is the feeling that, with ‘Budget Cuts’, 6LA8 loom on the cusp of some major discovery of their sound. There are ideas brimming here, and the fluid movement from drone to ambient to post-rock to electronic music is quite exhilarating to listen to. And while their output since ‘Budget Cuts’ has been largely and fiercely drone music – ‘Stupor’, released in November 2016, is almost 2 hours long – this album nonetheless marks a maturation of their sound and is one to look back on in fondness.