What the hell happened to Avial?
The iconic rock band from Kerala needs a reality check and perhaps, a new vocalist
Last year, alt rock band Avial from Kerala decided to launch their website avial.in and debut a new song “Aana Kallan” with a show at the South Mumbai music club Blue Frog. As anticipated, the venue had a small army of Malayali fans who knew every Avial song by rote alongside old and new Avial fans, who were willing to learn word for word. It was a weekend gig, but we were sure that a majority of the crowd was here for the band and not because of the favorable time slot.
Vocalist Tony John walked onto stage in a lungi, greeting the audience in Malayalam and cracking his trademark joke about wanting toddy on stage to a hooting audience. John hadn’t lost any of his cockiness since the day Avial’s debut album was launched in 2008 at the Bandra Amphitheatre in Mumbai. What he had lost though was his voice. This was evident because he was happy to let the audience do most of the singing at the Frog gig last year. The rest of the band sounded tight especially guitarist Rex Vijayan, who would break into a solo when John wanted to rest his vocals, providing the vocalist with all the support he needed.
This wasn’t the first time we went away disappointed after an Avial show. Most recently, we heard them at the Music, Arts and Dance Festival held in Ooty in April. The band performed a most lifeless set and John’s vocals were nowhere close to being in form. In 2010, the band performed at Zodiac, the annual college festival of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology in Mumbai. It’s all fine to blame a crude sound set up at a college fest, but there was no hiding the fact that John couldn’t keep his vocals together.
We knew what the band was capable of considering we had only recently been a part of the audience when Avial had delivered a thrilling set to launch their debut album. Avial’s original vocalist, Anandraj Benjamin Paul, had migrated to the US with his wife just ahead of the band’s debut album launch. The band’s turntablist and electronica expert John had taken over vocals. He opened the show with a salute and held onto that soldier’s swagger when he marched to “Nada Nada” on stage. John would only speak in Malayalam wearing his identity with a cool arrogance, and the audience shared his pride. That night, Avial was an underdog that had pulled off a successful show and the audience loved them more for it. Of course, none of the vocal flaws are audible in the well-produced debut album or any other Avial track that has been recorded in a studio.
In 2009, the band collaborated with an Italian five-piece act named A67, the result of which was the fiery “Chi Me Sape” (Who Knows Me Knows It). Guitarist Vijayan had even had a go at the sitar for this track. A67 had found Avial on Myspace and it seemed as if the band from Kerala had a series of inspiring international collaborations lined up.
Since 2010, we’ve heard buzz about Avial composing songs for Malayalam feature films. Their new track “Aana Kallan,” about religious conmen went into the soundtrack of a film titled Salt N’ Pepper. Last year, they composed another track titled “Chillane,” which means “broken” in Malayalam, for a thriller named 22 Female Kottayam.
To us, Avial will always be the band that shunned all norms – they released an all-Malayalam album as their debut and turned to their roots for lyrical and musical inspiration. It’s also because there hasn’t been another band like Avial since then out of Kerala or from any other part of the country. That John can sound so good on recordings only suggests two things: either he’s working on Auto-Tune in the studio or he just needs to rehearse a whole lot more before a gig.
Avial performs on:
May 23rd, Wednesday, 9 pm onwards, Blue Frog, Delhi. Entry: Rs 300
May 24th, Thursday, 9 pm onwards, Blue Frog, Mumbai, Entry: Rs 300
Photographs by Shyam Jacob