“There is a yearning to see a new crop of artistes who can take music forward. For that crowd, PBOTB kills it.”
Coke Studio has over time become the Pete Sampras of music television: consistently competent, well prepared, and occasionally – outright boring. The resurrected Pepsi Battle of the Bands (PBOTB) is the Agassi of the main duo of cola media programming: flashy, different and prone to missteps. But, what it really is, is exciting.
As Pakistan descended into a terrible, exacting security nightmare a decade ago, a flourishing music scene met twin comets of destruction: a contraction of public space for concerts and the digital onslaught that made music a difficult business to be in the world over. The country was no longer cranking out music superstars, so it just began to milk the ones we had. And in that context, Coke Studio has been a godsend, bringing the best of established talent together to mine the classics for added mileage.
But for many people, seeing the same stars who were big in the late 80s, all of the 90s, 2000s (some in all three AND this decade) has run its course, and there is a yearning to see a new crop of artistes who can take music forward. For that crowd, PBOTB kills it.
I’ve been a fan of the show since it re-started last year, making it one of the only programmes I wait all week to find out what happens next with the favourites I have become invested in, occasionally yelling at the judges on the screen for something they’ve done, being shocked when a talented band bombs and occasionally coming round to how prescient some of the commentary and insight eventually turns out to be by the judges.
Last year the talent pool that made it to the finals of the show was incredibly strong, tossing up two radically different bands, Kashmir and Badnaam. Kashmir does very ambient, atmospheric pop/rock with incredibly inventive songs (my favourite song from that whole season is Kashmir’s Bhudda Baba)– Badnaam is a no compromise Sufi rock band with the sound and attitude of grunge – its led by a front man whose musical integrity and conviction in vision harks back to an earlier more uncomplicated age. In a competition you want the finalists to polarize the audience into competing tribes – and in season 2 that had been done brilliantly, there was a fervor of support and debate between fans.
“But what really came into its own this year was the role of the judges, and not always for the better. The show only occasionally uses Farooq of Aaroh, which is unfortunate because his input is always very animated. Fawad Khan has this ability to give some very strong and dense technical advice and those insights are very interesting to hear. Both Bilal and Faisal of Strings have been a revelation”
This year it was evident just how tough the early slog of the shows was, bands with great potential like I.F.R.A, Dhool, Zarmasta, Aag, Kaghaz, Déjà Vu and Aarish couldn’t move forward in the competition.
The third season of PBOTB opened with a tremendous band, Xarb, and their cover of the Sabri Brothers Tashnagi. A moody track, with an excellent choice of underplayed guitar in the beginning that eventually lets loose in a barrage of bluesy notes during the solo is driven by the lead singers powerful voice and relaxed delivery. In some ways, it set the tone for what would be the rest of the shows, with Xarb, Bayaan, Tamaasha and 21 the band being the drivers of the competition.
The third season of PBOTB opened with a tremendous band, Xarb, and their cover of the Sabri Brothers Tashnagi, driven by the lead singers powerful voice and relaxed delivery.
How to play the game, not just the quality of the bands, really came out this year. Tamaasha was championed early on by the judges and in Episode 6 when they got the wrong song choices, an Ahmed Rushdie number that they played relatively straight which got them into the knock out stage called the danger zone – they subsequently did something somewhat similar in playing Chief Saab which got them knocked out. Bayaan hit it out of the park with an incredible rendition of Junoon’s Azaadi as their response to the danger zone. Not only did they do a great job, but perhaps as critically they chose the right song. I was really impressed by 21 the band and thought they had great potential with some cracking early performances and original songs – but they seemed to make the wrong choices in their last few performances where it seemed like they were trying to respond to the judges rather than staying true to themselves, coupled with really poor sound tone and mixing.
Tamaasha was championed early on by the judges
Bayaan hit it out of the park with an incredible rendition of Junoon’s Azaadi as their response to the danger zone.
Tamaasha is a creative, musically ambitious, tight and proficient band, whose most prominent asset is also their weakest link. No one else like their front man rocks out with sheer abandon, an utterly joyous stage presence. But his tendency to excessively use nasal western styling in his vocal don’t sit well on every song, and they need to do less rather than more on that front rather than including it cookie cutter style in everything. Bayaan is a band that started out as a staid, somewhat low-key presence. But they really grew into the competition, their vocalist has a sweet melodious voice, and they have some cracking originals. 21 the band has incredible potential, really strong and solid pop rock with songs that are refreshingly unafraid to be fun. Xarb is an incredibly strong band, who when they perform remind me of Depeche Mode even though they sound nothing like them. The lead singer’s voice is distinctive with his own style of delivery, even if it’s not very versatile, and the band supports him with great moody, groovy, jam music. This year, the guest performances were not like last seasons with the exception of Badnaam and Meesha, who it must be said, absolutely killed it. Call had really raised the bar last year, and Meesha has matched it with aplomb.
“This groupthink came out strongly with two groups – Tamaasha and 21 the band. The incredible cheerleading for Tamaasha led one to think the whole process was jury rigged (to their credit, they hadn’t). With 21, there was this confusing insistence by the judges that the band was punk – it clearly wasn’t, neither in their music, attitude or looks.”
But what really came into its own this year was the role of the judges, and not always for the better. The show only occasionally uses Farooq of Aaroh, which is unfortunate because his input is always very animated. Fawad Khan has this ability to give some very strong and dense technical advice and those insights are very interesting to hear. Both Bilal and Faisal of Strings have been a revelation, Faisal is an absolute joy to watch. Faisal has this earnestness, a feeling of absolute goodwill to the bands that comes across even when he is delivering bad news. On first glance Bilal appears to be exactly that at first glance, but he is quite the stern task master with very strong opinions and is utterly unexcitable. What makes Bilal compelling as a judge is his absolute lack of interest in being popular with the bands. Meesha strides the middle ground of all of them, holding firm on the technical side, while being encouraging and interested.
So, on paper, this is perfect. You have the best of the industry who bring gravitas and credibility to judging. But they are just not that compelling when it comes to working together as a group. With some minor exceptions, a lot of groupthink comes into play. Whichever judge opens with a line of praise or criticism, it tends to be parroted across the board. Stronger disagreements between the judges would allow for more interesting viewing, but critically, lend bands even more space to do their own thing and be themselves.
This groupthink came out strongly with two groups – Tamaasha and 21 the band. The incredible cheerleading for Tamaasha led one to think the whole process was jury rigged (to their credit, they hadn’t). With 21, there was this confusing insistence by the judges that the band was punk – it clearly wasn’t, neither in their music, attitude or looks. They were clearly pop-rock. It became a running theme during their stint on the show, they were held to that, along with the derision that they were Noori clones (not in those words).
21 the band has incredible potential, really strong and solid pop rock with songs that are refreshingly unafraid to be fun.
It would also be good for the judges to make some of their pet peeves clear at the start of the competition. 21 did my favourite song of the competition, an utterly left of center rendition of In Se Nain by Najam Sheraz – but were strongly criticized for changing some of the lyrics. In the same vein, the band Kaghaz was earlier criticized for not having a positive enough original song, decrying its despondency. In one of the rare missteps before their exit, a similar criticism was laid at the feet of Tamaasha, who took one of the most creatively gutsy decisions to redo Nayyara Noor’s Is Parcham into an aggressively militaristic rock anthem.
There is an unstable balance of musical conservatism and progressivism in the judges – they encourage one form of experimentation and discourage another – but you never know which one will come out. This needs to be clearer, creating a guessing game doesn’t help bring out the best in bands. Capriciousness doesn’t sit well for competitions.
Second, one would hope for stronger banter between the judges. We saw that in a brief clip released online where Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia quiz each other – it’s an incredible friendship and entertaining dynamic. It doesn’t exist between the judges on the show itself, one almost thinks they think they have been elevated to the bench. There was an early hint of it between Fawad and Ahmed Butt, but it was a flash in the pan not to be repeated.
“There is an unstable balance of musical conservatism and progressivism in the judges – they encourage one form of experimentation and discourage another – but you never know which one will come out.”
The show has been experimenting with its compering, and that has resulted in something for the better. Ayesha Omar has the right stuff as a bubbly, positive stage presence, but it was always undermined by her lack of colour commentary and a tendency to repeat exactly what was said elsewhere preceding her coming on. It took some time for Ahmed Ali Butt to make his presence felt, but it’s made a positive difference. In the episode where he gets into character as a chocolate hero, it looked like it was going to bomb into a sea of unfunny. But as the episode progressed, it was hilarious and entertaining. Giving these two more room to pontificate, or even challenge the judges would add some needed levity to the show.
There is no doubt about how important PBOTB is right now to the music scene. It’s both a platform and an aspiration – there can be no bigger combination. That being said, it’s doubtful about whether PBOTB is a great prize. Both Kashmir and Badnaam should have become white hot after their success, capitalizing on the heat with support to make them musical heavyweights. I spoke to bands in both this year and last year’s seasons, and there is a lot of resentment surrounding excessive input and direction during the recording of the show, with some bands getting a fairer shake than others with chances at do overs when the sound wasn’t right, and a strong sense that the winner and runner up have not been rallied behind other than doing some shows and appearing in advertisements.
“There is no doubt about how important PBOTB is right now to the music scene. It’s both a platform and an aspiration – there can be no bigger combination. That being said, it’s doubtful about whether PBOTB is a great prize.”
Bands should just take the exposure and do their own thing without worrying too much about winning or pleasing the sponsors. Because given the kind of weight put behind Badnaam and Kashmir (clearly not enough), coming in third or fourth might mean pretty much the same thing as winning the battle.
It’s a great show, maybe not such a great prize.
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