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Atomic Forest - Obsession

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Artist: Atomic Forest

Album: Obsession

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Mar. 22, 2012

The long-awaited and definitive compilation of India’s psych-pioneers Atomic Forest presents a compelling case that Bollywood did not necessarily run a monopoly on popular Indian music. Context provides the lion’s share of this story — and what a context it must have been. The late 1970s was a tumultuous time in Indian history, as Indira Gandhi’s two-year emergency suspension of the democratic process was winding down, and urban India fixed its gaze upon the west just as solidly as westerners were looking eastward.

This backdrop is even further set by the erudite 45-page booklet included with the CD, which alone ought to warrant its inclusion in any library of International Studies or Ethnomusicology. Rare photos, press clippings, and recollections from early Atomic Forest lead singer Madhukar Chandra Dhas (who doesn’t actually appear on the Obsession LP tracks, but is featured via some solo bonus songs) rocket the intrepid listener into what must have been an exciting, if volatile, Bombay rock scene. Young musicians struggled to find their own voice often coming into conflict with the demands of the limited local market for original rock music, the vagaries of the listening public, and at times, one another. And we learn that the constantly shifting membership of Atomic Forest was done in after only a few years by crooked promoters and eccentric band leader Keith Kanga’s unyielding command over the band’s earnings. But despite the tragic end to the band (and Kanga himself, who died an addict in New Delhi), their contribution does not go unheralded.

Prima facie, Atomic Forest created an enjoyable, if not terribly remarkable, mélange of funk and psychedelic tunes that are executed with a musical precision that at times is almost too good, threatening to undermine its own potential for reckless rocking. And it’s important to note that, outside of a chattering tabla backbeat in an otherwise by-the-numbers cover of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” this is not fusion music. In a blind test, Atomic Forest sounds as if they could have been from 1976 suburban Detroit, which is a credit to their enthusiastic mimicry of the records that they worshiped.

“Obsession ‘77 (Fast)” kicks off the original album tracks with an organ-laced go-go groove, atop which Abraham Mammen’s fuzzed-out lead guitar wavers and sizzles. Mammen’s now heavily phase-shifted solo (the second of three in this brief number) returns after a synthesizer solo. It’s a great demonstration of the band’s grip on dynamics and attention to the required ebb and flow of instrumental rock, concluding as it opened with a wash of synthesized wind noise. Perhaps hinting at that only nascent demand for original rock, the remainder of the program comprises competently performed, if less interesting, cover tunes. Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” gets a wah-wah drenched retread where singer Glen Gilbanks channels Ian Anderson (passably) and more of Mammen’s trebly/phased out licks. Deep Purple’s “Mary Long” is propelled by crackling fuzztone riffs, drums stumbling a little here and there, but overall makes for an engaging reinterpretation. The breezy “Sunshine Day” is a stripped-down take on U.K.-by-way-of-Ghana’s Osibisa, which in Atomic Forest’s hands plays out a bit more like Santana’s “Oye Como Va” than the afro-rock original.

Now-Again has augmented this reissue with tracks from Atomic Forest leader Keith Kanga’s album Hit Film Themes, which probably includes some of the same personnel, though credits are sparse. Both versions of “Butterfly” are the standout (and sole original) tracks here, with congas underpinning a cheerful synth lead and a bouncy guitar vamp during a hook that calls to mind Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” The hit film themes in question range from a more or less straight reading of The Godfather theme to a nimble take on the title theme from “The Fox,” accented with some cool, octave-effected guitar soloing from an uncredited player. Even more bonus tracks from Atomic Forest singer Madhu Dhas showcase his fine voice, and uncanny similarity to Cat Stevens, especially on the folky “Man, You’re Not Number One.” The acoustic, open-form meander of “Booboo Lullaby” hints at a blissed-out intermezzo after the party has settled. Dhas’s involvement in the rock musical “The Evolution of Mr. Rock” (with Atomic Forest) and a Bombay production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is evidenced both by his essay in the booklet and via the track “Gethesmane (I Only Want to Say)” from the latter.

One wishes that history were slightly different, and that Atomic Forest and its individual members were not so subject to the whims of the small local discotheque scene that appears to have driven them to focus on cover tunes. The originals on these records really cook, whetting the appetite for a main course that goes sadly unserved. But we are lucky to have such an astonishing, imagination-seizing document of a brief and long-gone time that, despite any shortcomings, serves as an important and accurate illustration of the innumerable dynamics of Kanga and Co.’s environment.

By Adam MacGregor

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