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From the Ashes

A metal guitarist who never said never, brings his Ashtoreth back from the dead

Samar Grewal Sep 26, 2009

“Hey hey, my my/Rock & roll will never die” goes the song by Neil Young. To Manjit Joseph, axeman for life, that’s the only credo to live by. “People don’t listen to these songs anymore”¦ they want to listen to what’s on the TV,” he says, halfway into a late-night practice session, with his band Ashtoreth, at an egg crate-padded basement somewhere deep in residential South Delhi. He’s talking about musicians like Blue Oyster Cult, Nazareth, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, a selection of whose songs his band has just ripped through in an inspired frenzy. They’ve been meeting every week for the past two years. Giving his cherry sunburst Epiphone Les Paul the flogging of its life, surrounded by all variety of graffiti, wires and the detritus of a hundred evenings, this is as good as it gets for Joseph.

Striding well into what I’m guessing must be his 30s (Joseph is protective of this detail) and for someone who’s barely known anymore among the country’s metal listening base, it’s impressive that he’s never had to work a conventional nine to five. “I had to support myself, so I learnt how to play the classical guitar. It took me four months to do the ATCL [Associate of Trinity College London] Guitar Recital degree so I could teach in embassy schools. You can’t make a living teaching in schools where they’re not interested in music.” In the decade and a half years since he decided that finger gymnastics was his calling, Joseph has also taken home tuitions, done studio sessions and composed for other musician.

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But as a performer, it wasn’t always that he was left wanting for an audience. Ashtoreth had a golden phase between 1998 and 2001, also a time when melodic metal and straight up blues-based hard rock was much bigger in the country. Bands like Nightmare on Elm Street and Brahma blasted their wares off of innumerable stages and Ashtoreth had their share, playing GIR in 2000 and 2001 besides doing the college festival circuit and even performing at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium as part of a festival billing.

Then, as happens to most bands, the other members left to pursue “real” jobs and Joseph was left the task of re-forming the band. “I’m the only other original member today, and even I went to Bombay for four years to work a corporate job,” says Sumit Sharma, who came back into the fold in 2007 to play rhythm with the band. As far as the rest of the present lineup is concerned, it took Joseph the best part of five years to get things back to a point where he’d feel comfortable getting on stage again. Leo joined on keys in 2003 and Pranav Gawri on bass in 2004, but he had to juggle with the others before settling on vocalist Malanthou Pamei and drummer Aryaman Chatterji in 2007.

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This writer, who remembers the Ashtoreth of his college days, caught up with Mark II at a couple of rehearsals leading up to their gig at the newly opened Hard Rock Café in Delhi last month (their third performance at the franchise since they reformed). While they’re naturally not as hot as what one remembers (an unambiguous obsession with high-pitched singing can have its downside), there’s a bit of the tireless warrior about everyone in the band. Listening to the ferocity and joy with which they dug into a genre-defining setlist requiring supreme technical proficiency, it often seems that besides raising hell they’re also preserving tradition in the way our uncles and elder siblings did when they turned us on to music that was made decades before we were born. Throw in a handful of originals referencing Knopfler’s guitar tone in an Eighties hard rock ballad (”˜Quest for Questions’) or the chugging speed of an Iron Maiden tour-de-force (”˜Just Too Much’) and we’ve worked up a pretty good nostalgia.

There is a class of popular music that does not age placidly like a Neil Young or a Johnny Cash. The music Ashtoreth play belongs to that class; there’s always the danger that they’ll cross over from brio to parody. But, rest assured, the song does go “My my, hey hey/Rock & roll is here to stay.”