The vacuum of Pakistani bands in the last decade or so has left a number of people, including me, scratching their heads. People heavily invested in the independent scene in Pakistan know the bands currently making the rounds and creating great music, but none of these have seemed to puncture into the mainstream. Since the 90’s, it seems that the internet, with the immediate availability of international music, as well as the rise of branded music shows, has created a curious soap bubble that bands are unable to break out of.
Sikandar Ka Mandar, the well-known indie-pop band from Karachi, released their second album to this musical landscape. Like fellow Karachi band E Sharp, there seems to be a weird lack of attention paid to the bands, especially since they tick all of the obvious boxes: good music – check, sing in urdu – check, hit singles on their debut albums – check, tried to get on a branded music show – check. And yet that jump into the mainstream seems like a chasm.
With ’36’, it seems like Sikandar Ka Mandar have decided to ignore the bubble. Listening to this album makes you want to play it loudly in the hope that other will hear it and ask ‘what’s that?’. It’s full of memorable hooks and interesting moments, fun enough to blast in the car but with enough detail to reward repeated listens through headphones.
Writing a good hook has never been difficult for the band – Jo Bhi and Badshah off their self-titled debut are evidence enough of that – and here on 36 they take their melodies to another level. Tu Fikr Na Kar has an anthemic chorus while Baaghi has a plucky riff that embeds itself immediately. Shehri has one of the best outros on the album when Suhail takes over the vocal, with Shahzad providing a melodramatic baritone backing harmony before the track breaks down into a frenzied crash of percussion, guitar and layered vocals.
Uncle, though, is the standout track, presenting a piercing and deliciously funny look at the world of corporate music. After being booted unceremoniously off Pepsi Battle of the Bands at the audition stage, SKM attempt to turn the tables somewhat, perhaps considering it a blessing in disguise. The band evidently has a complex attitude to corporate music, oscillating from devotion to disgust. ‘Paisey mein main tehr raha hoon dost!’ (I’m swimming in money!), says Shahzad, with a knowing wink. It’s clearly meant to read ironically, but as the chorus swoops in the tone changes. ‘Uncle bachao!’ sings Shahzad, in quiet desperation. ‘Mera naam phir se akhbaaron mein chaapa!” The desperation here sounds totally sincere. In Pakistan, under the current corporate climate, Sikandar Ka Mandar come to a sad realisation – perhaps only the carbonated uncles can save us. A choir takes over the track as though hypnotised: ‘har pal jee le’, they repeat again and again in a clear reference to the Pepsi slogan. They are completely sucked in, eyes turned blue, red and white… But the guitar solo breaks the spell, cutting through the mix. It’s a brilliant setup for the song, one that doesn’t succumb to a simplistic ‘fuck you’ but instead prefers irony and humour. It leads to a much more satisfying and ultimately rewarding song, and one of the best they’ve made.
The album is not entirely full of home runs though. Title track 36, for instance, suffers from what the rest of the album does not: it’s less that the sum of its parts. The song never comes together in the same satisfying way as the similar Himmat. Perhaps the most glaringly obvious anomaly on the tracklist is Sayasatdan, a song with only good intentions but falls flat on execution. It’s worth applauding SKM on their willingness to write a openly political song, but lyrics like ‘masoom bache mar rahe hain’ and ‘pyaar mohabbat ke khilaaf kyun ho’ reads a little too on the nose. Although it is refreshing to hear a band be direct rather than hide behind metaphor and irony, Sikandar Ka Mandar are at their best when their songs are dripping in the stuff – just look at the heavy satire of Badshah – that Sayasatdan sounds tone-deaf in comparison.
But the hits far outweigh the misses here, and the album manages to both bask in poppy anthems and also dabble in more experimental streaks of electronic music. The two most adventurous tracks bookend the album – Gehri Neend and the beautiful Cassette Kahani – and in between are enough colours and genuine sincerity to make you replay the album again and again. For those of us stuck inside this carbonated bubble with Sikandar Ka Mandar, 36 is a most welcome attraction as we wait for it to pop.