BLIND TASTE TEST: Nitin Sawhney – Beyond Skin

Dear Matt, 

This was Mercury nominated in 2000, and I’m never sure whether that is a good thing or not. 

It mixes the story of his parents moving from India to the UK with tensions in the Pakistan-India nuclear standoff.

Fusion is a bit of a dirty word, but along with the Indian classical sounds you might expect there’s rap, Portuguese traditional music, western style strings, and drum and bass beats on highlight ‘Nadia’.

It’s personal and political and has something to say musically and lyrically.

It might sound a bit coffee house generic to a first time listener in 2020. Maybe get into the mood with some nu metal and UK garage first, and let this ease you out of your turn of the millennium funk.

Cheers

James

 

I have literally never heard of this person. Looking at the release date it came before I really switched onto music in any decent way. I’m assuming that’s why I missed it first time round. So let’s go.

 I’m not going to lie, the first warbles were concerning. Was I going to be listening to Gabrielle? That, combined with the spoken excerpts about nuclear testing in India. Jarring. The vocals sounded a little dated, but it clicked into place quickly with some strings and simple beats.

 

Moving on to the second song, ‘Letting Go’, there is an interesting use of the sound of rain. It feels transportive. I feel like I am forlornly looking out of the window as the skies open. These moments are broken by chant-singing which is mirrored by the strings. It feels like a release from what has felt quite restrained. So far I’m intrigued, but nothing has stood out from the trip hoppy vibe of the time.

Then it all changes for ‘Homelands’. The rapid fire singing. Almost rapping. Then the vocals slow down and are accompanied by some classical guitar making it feel almost like Flamenco. The vocals are intense. Surrounded by music that fades in and out, allowing them to be a focal point. I felt completely washed away as it builds over 6 minutes, getting bigger and more urgent, before crashing into a beautifully bare and quiet ending. At this point I am 100% on board.

As we go through the next three tracks we switch from spoken word, to something reminiscent of ‘Letting Go’ with more natural water soundscapes, and then finally a more traditional drum and bass track with some ethereal vocals floating over the top. The range of influences seem to keep being ripped apart and stuck back together with each song. It’s great.

Unfortunately, that’s where the hot streak ends. ‘Immigrant’ returns to the dated vocals of the first track. It loses me. Then there’s the musical backing. I think the technical term is plinky plonky piano. I feel like I’m listening to a Disney song. A BIG turn off.

Luckily, the album does recover. ‘Serpents’ is a cagey and weird song; some kind of wind instrument floats all over the place with the echoing vocals. Though it’s not as stunning as ‘Homelands’, I’m an absolute sucker for a long build and this delivers.

 At this point I’m pretty satisfied. We have some chill downbeat drum and bass numbers and I’m thinking this vibe will simply see the album out. I’m wrong. ‘The Conference’ shows up and I don’t think I have heard anything like this ever before. The interplay between the two vocalist is bewildering and engrossing. Is this my new favorite? Am I just being hypnotized? I do not know what occasion would make me turn to this song, but I love it.

Something I have yet to really talk about, but a cornerstone of the album, is the political messages embedded throughout. Most songs are bookended by audio clips that cover one of the two main themes. Immigration and Nuclear Weapons. The soundscapes feel natural and even with the melding of these disparate genres it feels so authentic and real. When these excerpts from the news arrive, the juxtaposition is jarring and seems to emphasise the nature, but also the inhumanity.

As the final track ends Sawhney does not mince his words. We are left with something that the father of nuclear weapons, Oppenheimer, quoted from Hindu Scripture, “I have become death, destroyer of worlds”. I can’t think of anything more devastatingly apt. A wonderful and powerful album. Lets just not talk about ‘Immigrant’. Thanks James.

Words by Matt Paul

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