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Three parts mischief, one part sincerity

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 17, 2018

(Oc)cult practices: The band Hoirong has a small but devoted fan following. Photo: Pranav Gohil

Noise-punk band Hoirong is back with their most accessible, honest and personal record yet

‘Dhakkan’, the fourth track on Bengaluru/Delhi noise-punk band Hoirong’s third album Mwah, begins with a recitation of instructions on safely storing your hearing aid for the night. “Close cover securely, remove hearing aid when ready for use,” intones frontman and principal songwriter Kamal Singh, over heavily overdriven guitars and an arrhythmic drum beat.

This mix of caustic abrasiveness and self-aware absurdity is the perfect introduction to Hoirong (Meitei for ‘a**hole’), a band that takes perverse pride in taking nothing seriously, least of all themselves.

Over three years, 11 releases and the occasional heavily sardonic media interview, the solo project turned band — the full line-up includes guitarist Akhil Sood, bassist Avinash Manoli and drummer Akshat Nauriyal — has built up a small but cultishly devoted fanbase. Part of their appeal lies in music that takes beautifully crafted pop melodies and buries them under gnarly, speaker-busting walls of atonality and noise, along with lyrics that veer between razor-sharp insight and campy off-the-wall humour. But what really sets Hoirong apart is Singh and company’s genuine, gleeful will to subvert everything, including the image-obsessed, publicity-hungry industry they find themselves in. In a scene full of corporate rock masquerading as ‘independent music’, Hoirong is the real deal.

Released on May 25 after months of online teasing, Mwah is the band’s most accessible record yet, thanks to the addition of live drums and a dash of polish, courtesy Delhi producer Viraj Mohan’s skills on the board. The guitar noise and dissonance of their earlier records are still there, but Singh keeps the sonic mayhem on a tighter leash here. Instead, Mwah showcases Singh’s pop sensibilities, as he crafts a beautiful and intimate love letter to his ’90s punk and alternative influences. There’s also a more pragmatic reason for this change in songwriting approach. “I realised that you can’t just do whatever you want to do on the record, you also have to think about what you can do live,” he says. “This time I focused on keeping it minimal, so that later on there’s no trouble.”

Mwah differs from its predecessors thematically as well. While the earlier records focused on scathing satire and aberrant humour, their latest is much more personal and introspective. Singh has had a rough time since moving back to Bengaluru last year. There’s the financial instability of being in an indie rock band, and the frustration of trying to convince hidebound hospitals and schools of the benefits of music therapy, his other vocation. To top it all, he had to deal with a family crisis that saw him estranged from his four-year-old daughter.

Singh also spent the past year in therapy, trying to deal with issues and insecurities that are rooted in his childhood. He draws much of his inspiration for Mwah from these trials. “The other albums were about fun and being stupid, this one isn’t like that in terms of content,” he says. “A lot of my emotional experience has gone into these songs.”

Themes of self-awareness and self-realisation run through the album, like on the disjointed garage-punk opener ‘Pushup Bra’, which features brutally honest self-assessment (“I am such a f***ing mess”) and a mantra for the therapy generation (“I believe I found myself and everyone else can save the world”). Peace continues in the same vein, using the idea of transubstantiation as a metaphor for the helplessness that comes with depression (“Turn this water into piss/ Turn this river into piss/ Turn this ocean into piss”). And then there’s ‘Grant Hill Drinks Sprite,’ which mixes a reference to an advertisement featuring the NBA star with visual imagery of life as a Sisyphean struggle (“From here it is uphill, from here it is only f***ing uphill”).

Elsewhere, Singh muses on the death of an old school friend in ‘Puke’, a crushingly heavy track which has him shouting “Mapuia is dead, he’s f***ing dead” on repeat. It’s a heartbreaking lament, expressing the shock and grief he felt on hearing the news. “Nobody I grew up with is around me, and the ones that are important to me are dying,” he tells me. “Two of my closest friends are now dead.” Meanwhile, ‘Precocial’ is a love song for India’s jaded punk hipsters, a constituency that Singh obviously identifies with. “You and me are future anarchy middle class rejects,” he sings in his typically self-deprecatory manner.

It’s not all inward-looking though. Singh still reserves some of his venom for the world around him. So ‘47RR’ is a vicious takedown of militant nationalism and Hindutva, with lyrics like “Take a bullet in the name of the country/ Take a shot to the centre of your head it’s called the temple.” ‘Two To Tango’ takes aim at the petty, holier-than-thou hipsters that dominate Bengaluru’s indie scene and are more interested in being seen than in paying attention to the music. “They don’t want to engage, they’re there to be snobs,” Singh says. There is also a smattering of the band’s signature dark and bizarre humour, such as on the aforementioned ‘Dhakkan’. ‘Saraswastika’ features the perfect gallows humour of “Don’t leave me hanging, hanging like a Suicide fan club”, while ‘Pardon My French’ is gleefully juvenile with its chants of “Fa lala la lala f*** you.” There’s even a dash of madcap experimentation on the shehnai wedding music-meets-noise rock of ‘Peacock Dasgupta’s Tattoo Is Better’.

At its heart, Mwah documents the loneliness and insecurities that come from feeling like an outsider. “I’m trying to make my insecurities cool,” Singh chuckles. It’s a reminder of what drew many of us, Singh included, to punk rock in the first place — the sense of belonging and community that we couldn’t find in our everyday lives. Mwah may never sell millions of copies, but by laying bare all his flaws, Singh has crafted a record that today’s outcast punk kids can relate to. In that aspect at least, it’s a smashing success. And when it comes to a punk record, that’s the highest achievement there is.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

Published on July 01, 2016

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