Pepsi Battle of the Bands, now in its fourth iteration, featuring Fawad Khan, Meesha Shafi and Strings co-founders Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia as judges, has gotten tougher in 2019.
If the last two seasons featured top 8 acts, this year, as Bilal Maqsood said on the show, the judges pushed for 12 acts from which the top two will be retained, who will then be voted for by the fans with one emerging as the winner.
Another change that has been made is in the category of host where Hina Altaf has been brought in, in place of Ayesha Omar. Kashmir and Bayaan were among the bands that featured on the debut episode apart from the judges, reiterating how the show has brought back band culture.
Not entirely true since bands like Khumariyaan, Chand Tara Orchestra, Mughal-e-Funk, Mole, Rushk, Co-VEN, Keeray Makoray, Poor Rich Boy, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Orangenoise, Takatak, Janoobi Khargosh and The D/A Method (named partly after the D/L Method used in cricket – that’s for you, cricket fans watching the world cup) and wait for it, Noori, have made up for the era and are a part of contemporary music history. Mauj, led by Omran Shafique, is on the comeback trail as well, with a new line-up.
Perhaps the greatest success story of Pepsi, Mekaal Hasan, renowned as a producer and revered as the Mekaal Hasan Band, not only still exists – unlike EP that only got together for Pepsi and sporadic Aaroh – but is presently producing their fourth studio record. Speaking of which, it is somewhat odd how MHB hasn’t been invited to perform in any capacity while Aaroh and EP have. Maybe this season, who knows? After all, this is just the beginning. What is true is that Pepsi provides bands with a national platform, prize money and the promise of an album, plus a music identity that goes national, leads to awareness, concerts, which is how bands make money and truly connect with fans. Kashmir, Xarb and Tamashaa have carved a name. Other bands from the platform need to emulate, not their music, but drive and hunger.
The judges also noted that it wasn’t easy letting go of some bands in previous seasons such as Dhool but, in the end, they were looking for the complete package.
For the first time since its resurrection, the judges, upon hearing auditions, selected the right bands that we would all agree upon. The ones who didn’t make the cut or even finish their audition song sounded truly awful. Glimpses of some such performances were shown in-between and you had to agree with the judge(s) panel.
Over the course of two episodes, several acts made it to the top 12. In the first episode, Neon with the grunge-esque ‘Muscle Car’; Starzone with the melancholic ‘Chalo Chalein’, Auj - whose goose-bumps inducing performance had Fawad Khan so moved that he didn’t just shortlist the band in the first episode, he simply selected them for the main rounds - earned a standing ovation from Fawad, Meesha and Faisal as well for the song ‘Lufz’.
Other bands that survived the chopping board to make it to the top 12 included
Seismic Tremors, a partial rap band who delivered an astonishing cover performance of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan’s ‘Sanwal Morr Moharran’ that stood out so much that Faisal Kapadia called them “intelligent” and Meesha Shafi “creative”.
Skhehlaj with ‘Dam-e-Dastageer’; Aarish with the retro ‘Aarzu’; Mousiqa with an electric cover of Noor Jehaan’s ‘Bindi’ and Jhoot with a cover of Karavan’s ‘Gardish’ also performed during the first episode, making it an overall strong episode.
The second episode opened with a performance by Kashmir off their debut album to be re-released. ‘Bhago’ as Kashmir told Instep, is about people who run away from the disenfranchised or disheartened people instead of lending a helping hand or a shoulder.
Another good thing to emerge this season is that a lot of bands, if not all, presented originals and some returned from last season, such as E-Sharp.
Having taken the advice of the judges and making good use of it, E-Sharp, who lost last year, made the top 12 cut this season by killing it with their original performance of ‘The Anthem of Shabana’.
Both Meesha Shafi and Fawad Khan gave them a standing ovation, with Khan stating, “I love you guys, yaar”. Uraan performed ‘Khamooshi’ with Meesha Shafi intelligently picking up the Vital Signs element the band brings to mind, a view not held by Bilal Maqsood, who found the “guitars messy” and the vocalist a complete letdown.
Marjaan, a band that has come before to the show, returned with a whole other thing happening for them, nailing their performance with an original called ‘Jhalleya’.
In the end, not all bands were going to make it. But those that have made the cut to the next stage include E-Sharp, Auj, Neon, Starzone, Uraan, Aarish, Skehlaj, Black Hour, Mousiqa, Jhoot and Marjaan.
It was good to see that the judges may have disagreed on bands but even those who didn’t make it were not insulted but instead encouraged to keep improving.
The top 12 made it on the heels of potential and a great deal of promise but one song does not maketh the band. So, the coming episodes where elimination is always a possibility, bands that have been chosen will need to up the ante.