The first song on Saptak, the Mekaal Hasan Band’s (MHB) second studio album, starts with a jazz-like shuffle on the drums before settling into a catchy, if straightforward, Pakistani rock tune. The false start is a little nod to MHB’s origins and its attempt at creating what some reviewers have called “Eastern jazz”.
Their first album, a 2004 release called Sampooran, featured complex instrumentation that combined the virtuosity of guitarist Mekaal Hasan, flautist Mohammed Ahsan Papu and vocalist Javed Bashir. It didn’t always work, but sometimes—in songs such as Sajan and the title track Sampooran, for example—they managed to nail the combination of jazz’s free-flowing improvisation with a taut song structure that stopped it from getting carried away.
Guitar hero: Mekaal Hasan.
Saptak builds on that sweet spot. Four of the 11 songs on the disc cross the 6-minute mark, but they never seem meandering. Be it Bashir’s powerful classical vocals or Hasan’s snaky guitar lines—the solos are plentiful but never overdone. Fans of the Pakistani rock sound—with bands such as Fuzon or Junoon, for example—will find plenty to like here.
Since it was established in 2001, the Lahore-based MHB has been a regular on the live music circuit (they toured India in 2008), building up a reputation for tight, well-balanced live shows. They’re also cited as influences by a number of contemporaries, having featured on the Al Jazeera television channel and the American radio network, National Public Radio (NPR).
Hasan studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, before returning to Pakistan to set up a recording studio. His musical influences range from Led Zeppelin to Hindustani classical. Lyrically, the album draws, among other influences, on poetry from sufi saint Shah Hussain, Bulle Shah and the poet and writer Amrita Pritam. In his interview with NPR, however, Hasan is quoted as saying he “doesn’t quite know” what the lyrics of MHB songs mean most of the time. “To be quite honest, I’m just going by the sound of the melody,” he says.
In the album, the three performers almost seem to take turns to dominate a song. The wailing guitars on Bandeya pulse in and out like a siren next to the soaring vocals, while in Ranjha they lurk ominously beneath the surface the whole time. The flute is interesting—in some songs, such as opener Chal Bulleya, it adds an upbeat, almost cheerful timbre to the sound. In others, such as Mahi, it’s a solo instrument, and defines the song itself. There is plenty of genre experimentation on display in Saptak. Sanwal carries a hint of Bhangra, while Bhageswari starts with a funk-inspired bassline. Huns Dhun is the most straightforward “fusion” track of the bunch, starting with an extended flute solo and driven by Bashir’s stellar vocals. A standout track is the album-closer Albaella, an epic, darker song that stands at nearly 10 minutes.
MHB seems to represent a new wave of independent musicians from Pakistan who are bridging the gap between the classical and rock traditions, coexisting with the slick Bollywood pop and robust classical scenes, and drawing from both. Saptak is an accessible record bursting with clever melodies. It’s highly recommended.