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The calming influence of All India Radio

The band's latest album has greater use of vocals, a departure from their usually cinematic soundtrack sort of music

Martin Kennedy (left), the sole constant member of AIR, and Steve Kilbey, who has collaborated with Kennedy on numerous albums. (Facebook/kilbeykennedy)

It’s hard to figure out why a band, formed in Australia in 1998, would call itself All India Radio (AIR). It’s equally hard to describe the genres that AIR’s music can be classified into. Founded in Melbourne by Martin Kennedy, a Tasmanian, AIR are an electronic band; Kennedy is the sole constant member, with a rotating cast of other musicians. Often (but not always), their sound is instrumental, ambient and low-fidelity. But sometimes they create soundscapes that are so distinctly progressive rock that they can sound like early Pink Floyd or the works of another English musician and composer, the venerable Brian Eno.

At times there is even a hat tip to such influences. Their latest album, Afterworld, released in April, has a version of Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. Pink Floyd fans will remember that song from the band’s 1968 album, A Saucerful Of Secrets—and will also likely recall that it was one of the last albums to feature the late Syd Barrett, a Pink Floyd founder whose excessive use of psychedelic drugs led to his ouster from the band. On Afterworld, the song gets a makeover, bass-driven, with a bit more tempo than the original. A female vocalist sings the psychedelic lyrics (Little by little the night turns around/ Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn/ Lotuses lean on each other in yearning/ Under the eaves the swallow is resting) as synth lines swirl.

Also read: The new vanguards of modern psychedelia

Afterworld is a bit of an exception to AIR’s usually cinematic soundtrack sort of music. In fact, the band’s tracks have been used in several TV series and films, including the popular American police drama CSI: Miami. Afterworld has greater use of vocals, mostly by guest singers such as the Tasmanian singer Sasquin, who features in the track titled Deep Blue, a mesmerising song that can lull you into a stupor. Kennedy has enlisted a bevy of musicians for Afterworld. Devin Townsend, the versatile Canadian musician who plays everything from extreme metal to progressive rock, collaborates on the meditative and uplifting track Sula Guin. In another track, The Time Of Our Lives, the Australian classical guitarist Gareth Koch makes an appearance, his delicate guitar lines complemented by downtempo keyboards and drums.

For a band that is not as well known as it perhaps ought to be, AIR are a prolific outfit. Afterworld is the 26th album since their debut full-length, The Inevitable, came out in 1999. That debut album can throw some light on their origins. The cover of the album is a black and white photograph of a street in a city that is clearly Indian. The opening track is called Hotel Madras, an instrumental tune that builds up gradually. The Indian connection is visible elsewhere on the album as well. One of the tracks is called Bollywood Nights, and in yet another, titled All India Radio, radio jockeys speak in Tamil and English, and there are samples of the signature tune, familiar to most Indians, of the original All India Radio (Akashvani).

Also read: Where 'bhajan' meets gospel song

But The Inevitable can seem like a rough-at-the-edges kind of ambient album that appears to be a work still in progress. It was later that the band found its groove. By around 2008-09, AIR’s albums had become more spacey and psychedelic. Some people (this writer included) find it difficult to locate music that forms a perfect background while engaging in activities such as reading or writing. Often, the music can be an unwanted distraction. AIR’s instrumental albums aren’t like that. Put them on in the background and they create a sort of calm that can actually enhance concentration or sharpen the focus on whatever else you are doing.

Some of their prodigious output is exceptionally suited for listening while working. A Low High from 2009 is one such. Check out the track Intrigue from that album as it shifts the pace from a medium tempo chant to an abstract, slowed down, synth-created calming ambience. Red Shadow Landing (2012) is another album that works like a panacea for anxiety or stress, with its perfectly paced tracks—notably, The Original, Owlpacas In Flight and Tomorrowland.

On AIR’s page on Bandcamp, the musician-friendly site where artists and bands can directly upload their music and decide how they want to distribute and price it, Kennedy says: “Since 1998, I play mostly ambient music. Sometimes spacey and cosmic like Pink Floyd, sometimes electronic and chilled.” That probably sums up a curiously named band and its music just as well as WIRED magazine once did: “Since the turn of the 21st century, All India Radio has mashed the ambient-hop signatures of DJ Shadow, Tortoise and Thievery Corporation with the instantly recognisable guitar sound tracking of Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti. The resulting narcotic musical textures are capable of floating listeners to galaxies far, far away.”

The Lounge List: Five tracks by All India Radio to bookend your week

1. Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun from Afterworld

2. Deep Blue from Afterworld

3. Sula Guin from Afterworld

4. The North Sky from Red Shadow Landing

5. Intrigue from A Low High

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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