Throughout the time I listened to Ali Suhail’s latest collection of work, titled White Flag, I felt like I was attending a small concert. The sound has been treated and mixed to give that ‘authentic’ live feel to the music. There’s no pop, retro or EDM-ing up this album to make it work. It will stand and be judged on pure instrumental skills alone.
Suhail’s is a well-known name in the underground or alternative music scene in Pakistan, having first broken in to the mainstream with Jumbo Jutt, in the music show Uth Records 10 years ago. Since then, he’s joined and played with prominent acts such as Sikandar Ka Mandar, Takatak, Natasha Humera Ejaz and Umair Jaswal, among others.
He is somewhat of a guitar virtuoso and his astonishingly diverse skills — not just in guitar playing but also in composition — are out on display in White Flag and other collections and singles he’s put on his online media platforms on YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify.
The two singles that stand out from the album, and which have the greatest number of plays, are 'Firetruck' featuring Aaishay Haque and 'Done' featuring Abdullah Siddiqui. Both of those songs couldn’t be more different from each other.
Ali Suhail’s album White Flag satisfies a craving for good ‘live’ music
'Firetruck' is a soft mellow number that begins with Aaishay harmonising over a light strumming of the acoustic guitar before she starts singing. The opening lyrics provide the clues to what the song is about right away:
“All attempts to fly away/ Fell short of/ Outer space/ Still I/ Can’t shake my denial/ Landed back in my distaste/ In an aggravated display/ Of affection/ I beg your attention”
Ah, the age-old complications and anxiety of trying to leave a toxic relationship. Aaishay Haque does the backing vocals to her own singing giving a richness to her vocals that adds to the somewhat ethereal feel to the song. At this point, the percussions, bass guitar and other instruments gently start making their way into the song.
Unlike what is conventionally done, there isn’t a clear pre-chorus or chorus. The song is carefully structured in such a way that it sounds like it’s being improvised as it comes along. 'Firetruck' also picks up pace as the song progresses and ends rather abruptly after a masterpiece of an electric guitar solo by Nasir Siddiqui. The song builds up to that rock music crescendo and then just… stops. The fire’s out, I guess.
'Done' featuring Abdullah Siddiqui starts on a high note with the Yusuf Ramay setting the beat to the song with his drumming. The song presents Abdullah Siddiqui in a whole new light — gone is the whispering, brooding, pop-EDM artist and in its place is an angsty rock music vocalist singing out and loud, so even the those at the end of the hall can hear his anguish.
“I stand across you/ Made of bricks/ For better or worse/ I’m letting myself enjoy the kicks and blows/ But for the time being/ I’ll let myself be just another one of your hard feelings/ I’m not afraid of all of your stupid obsessions/ I’m peeling my skin/ Not kneeling down for your sins.”
Done is an almost vengeful rant of a human punching bag that’s had enough. There’s pain and there’s anger that’s crossing over into bitterness. Ibrahim Imdad makes his presence felt throughout the song with his skillfull finger playing on the bass guitar — Done has a beautifully crafted bass guitar flow throughout the song.
The chorus goes: “You keep running round/ But I’m done/ My time is running down/ But I’m done/ I’m done”, followed by the line that’s sometimes repeated in the song: “Better be broken even than broken down.”
As Abdullah sings the last line the very last time, the song comes to an abrupt end. Just like that. I guess he’s done.
Ali Suhail does the kind of work live music aficionados would hold sacred. And at a time when attending a concert seems like a faraway dream, White Flag helps in numbing some of that craving.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 9th, 2021