'Ma Ek Sapana' excels in three areas that have come to define the quintessential Astha Tamang-Maskey sound: a versatile voice, atmosphere and sonic experimentation. Although the sound is a logical progression from her previous full-length album 'Sabai Thikai Huncha' and the more recent, experimental '11:11', this album is a unique, balanced, more mature oeuvre that invites listeners to connect, emotionally, to its words, music and ideas.
The production is excellent: the sound is full, the vocals are crisp and the guitars, sharp, sit slightly off-center. The piano (in 'Shahar' and 'Supposed to Be') is a welcome addition to already diverse instrumentation. Particularly impressive is the way in which Astha and co. (including co-writer/co-producer/co-engineer Rohit Shakya) are able, through creative use of digital instruments (orchestral pads, sonic ornaments, beats) and bass, to sculpt engaging soundscapes that make use of the full sonic spectrum.
Before we get to the track-by-track review, watch the full-length music video of the opening track Khula Aakash, directed by Rohit Shakya and featuring Deep Chhetri and Astha's younger brother Ozasvi Maskey Tamang. Best viewed fullscreen in HD.
- Driven primarily by vocals and crisp, plucked acoustic guitars, 'Khula Aakash' (open skies) is, in its minimalism, a very ambitious song. Slowly and progressively, aided by orchestral pads and and low-frequency “waves”, the song is able to build a rich, calm atmosphere. Astha's vocals show considerable growth in both style and ability and are particularly impressive at the start of the song (approaching the 1:00 mark) and in sections with soaring vocals (at 1:55 and 3:34). Its beautiful lyrics and soothing instrumentation are ideal for when you're feeling contemplative, introspective and are at awe of the universe.
- Catchy, playful, fast, 'Hareek Saas Sita' (with every breath) is my favourite track off the record. Even with its even 4/4 rhythm and fairly straightforward structure, there's something liberating about both the words and carefree way in which they're sung. The subtle, airy backing vocals and the break that starts at around 2:20 (followed by more soaring vocals) are especially fun. Also, has a rockin' hammond organ in the intro.
- 'Shahar' (city) is both emotionally and sonically the most intense track in the album, sitting overwhelmingly in the lower end of the spectrum for the entire length of the track. The very first notes on the piano, like the deep howls of the bass line and the screeching accents among other sonic ornaments, sound strained and tense, successfully contributing to the haunting, somewhat discordant high-tension mid-tempo jungle of unquiet emotion.
- 'Disconnected' first appeared as an early demo and was later re-recorded as an acoustic track for 11:11. Here, it returns as a playful, retro, more varied version of a classic anthem that's liberally sprinkled with computer metaphors and terminology (“sending error, message failed”, “frozen, need to restart again”, “we're tangled up so hit refresh”, “troubleshoot, find a back-up plan, shut it down before the crash”; I'll stop here before I quote the entire song). The snare sound in the verses is reminiscent of 16-bit game consoles, there's plenty of of small digital ornaments (like the funky retro noises in the break that start at 2:05) and I'm convinced there are metronome clicks and drum stick hits at certain parts of the song. The attention to detail is impressive, right down to the annoyingly high-pitched, hyper-panned device noise at the end. I love how this version celebrates the quirky, admittedly geeky line, “Press F1, I'm in need of some help!” 'Disconnected' is just an insanely clever, ridiculously fun song that I, frankly, can't get enough of.
- 'Bhulisake' (I've already forgotten) showcases both Astha's increasingly capable vocals—a slightly strained, controlled voice to hit higher notes in the chorus; smooth, airy backing vocals at around 1:30; classically-inspired humming that begins around 2:32—and creative musicality. The clapping percussion, quiet metronome clicks, the organ accents, funk-like drumming with lots of variation and a bright piano sound give the song a live acoustic clubhouse feel. Clever lyrics (“bhayeka dui haat, timrai hata ma / bhayeko eutai man, timrai sathai ma”) and overall good production make this a very enjoyable (not to mention catchy; I've been singing it in my head) composition.
- 'Up' is a busy, dense, atmospheric downbeat-ish track that both sonically and lyrically communicates—this at the risk of reading too much into it—the inherent tension in the life of a restless artist who, in her relentless quest of improvement (and, perhaps, perfection), has to fight self-doubt and come to terms with changes around her. The lyrics are simple but powerful: “should I be patient and wait, and wait, should I take a step forward and maybe regret?” In Up, Astha shows off her vocal prowess with cascading vocal lines; passionate, emphatic singing (“...and time just stabs you in the eyes” at around 2:04) and more of those airy background vocals. The chorus is very catchy and even features some distorted guitars. I'm not a fan of the intro synth keyboard sound and what I imagine to be (admittedly judicious) use of autotune. 'Up' is an otherwise very powerful, emotive track that demands attention.
- 'Bhed', musically fairly simple with its quiet bass line, subtle synth lines and piano, ticking percussion and strummed guitars, is ambitious in how much it depends on the vocals to drive the song. Astha's voice is complemented by those of Rohit Shakya (of Jindabaad), who contributes backing vocals pretty much through the length the of the song to very good effect, especially in the bit that start at 1:40 (you'll remember he was guest vocalist in 'PMS'). Although the song has a very interesting melody line and some fantastic vocal work, I find that the overall tone is rather depressing (well, mostly because of the the section that starts at 2:32). This is in sharp contrast to songs like 'Hareek Saas Sita' and 'Bhulisake' that, I think, best represent the album.
- When I first heard 'Supposed to Be', I immediately thought of Norah Jones. Not because I'm familiar with her work—I'm not—but because her music is the closest I can compare the distinct style of the song to in my limited knowledge of music outside of metal (and some jazz and classic pop). I love this song. I love the the interplay of bass and piano, the chord progression, the very pleasant, soulful singing, playful but melancholic humming behind the chorus (at 1:38, for example). The mood—youthful yearning, confusion, disillusionment—is particularly captivating. My only gripe with the song is the ending line, “We're not anymore”, which, in its directness, undoes the feeling of uncertainty that is so well developed throughout. “We were supposed to grow,” the lyrics go at one point. With this song, Astha demonstrates that she certainly has.
- The opening piano riff of 'Khaali' (empty) is difficult to forget once it's stuck in your head. Oddly, I think this song would fit in perfectly with the sound of 11:11. The drumming is straightforward but cleverly accentuated every so often with extra snare hits and an interesting pattern on the hi-hat. Given the superlative standard set by previous songs on the album, 'Khaali' doesn't stand out too much. Until, that is, you come to the section that starts at around 1:57 that transports you to a warm evening around a bonfire on a hill and under the stars, as a friend narrates a story her grandmother might have told when she was younger. The synth and choir after each verse, the eeriness of the synth, the reassuring melody of the vocal line and fantastic lyrics all come together to creating a dreamy, lush atmosphere that's made only more interesting with the rather unexpected variation in time signature. I only wished this went on for longer.
- The first thing that stands out about 'Emotion', before you're able to appreciate the intriguing lyrics, is the use of autotune as a vocal effect (and, arguably, instrument). I'm not fan of this style and although I acknowledge that it can be used effectively, find I overwhelmingly prefer other techniques to achieve similar effects. A robotic version of Astha is more than a little disconcerting; here, however, this is perhaps the intended effect. 'Emotion' is a very strange song with unresolved chord progressions and eery backing vocals. Even though I'm not as taken by it as I am by the other tracks, I admire the sound craftsmanship.
- Title track 'Ma Ek Sapana' (I, a dream) features narration and additional lead vocals by Astha's mother Susan Maskey, who also contributed her impressive, emotive, almost certainly classically-trained voice to two tracks ('Timi Bina' and 'Chhardai Ujelo') in Sabai Thikai Huncha; and Pooja Shrestha. It's worth noting that the inspired lyrics to this and four of the six other songs in Nepali were written by her. 'Ma Ek Sapana' builds up slowly, layer by layer with the opening sound of tame waves washing up on shore. This is soon accompanied by a piano riff that is restrained but yearning to go somewhere. The bobbing bass sound, the only percussive element until about 1:50, is reminiscent of 'PMS'. This delicate sound is then animated by three remarkably similar voices that are then supported by dreamy, multilayered, choir-like lead and backing vocals by Astha, particularly remarkable in the sections that starts at 3:20 and 4:17. At around 3:45 is a short interlude with a sitar-like guitar solo against the backdrop of distant thunder and rain. All this builds up to an epic finale with all instruments together deferring, as the voice fades into the distance, to the quiet waves where it all began. Only this time, there's the promise of stronger winds. The closing line “Ma ek thopa” (I, a single drop), although just as humble, sounds more hopeful, somehow more assertive than it did at the start of the song. A very satisfying finish to the fantastic journey that started on a high note with 'Khula Aakash'.
'Ma Ek Sapana' is a tremendous, inspired release from an ambitious, creative musician (and friend) who has clearly matured as a singer and, judging by the emotional and thematic depth of the songs, as an artist. It engages, provokes, intrigues and inspires. I can't wait to hear what Astha will create next.
Get the album
I highly recommend purchasing 'Ma Ek Sapana' from CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon or, if you're in Kathmandu, a local CD store. You'll be supporting young, independent musical talent and treating yourself to fantastic music.