AR Rahman, Music, Quizzing

The Rahman Quiz

While I acknowledge that I am a Lapsed Quizzer, there comes a time in a man’s life when he is forced to shake that queasy (yeah, fine, pun intended) feeling out of himself by going all Powerpointy. I have been listening to some Rahman every now and then. Though I tend to stay away from his earlier catalog as much as I can, ever since that year-long sabbatical from his music. A friend and I were talking about “Aha” moments in his songs – where random back-up singers go “aha”, like in ‘Kilimanjaro’ and the title track of Parthaley Paravasam. We tried to think of other songs of a similar nature, and suddenly I found odd bits of trivia popping up in my head. So here, out, damned spot. A bunch of 20 questions that are somewhat sensible, and sometimes not. Please make sure to read the fine print (second slide), and come back here for answers in a few days.

(For those who cannot see what’s below, it’s supposed to be an embedded Slideshare iFrame. Here’s a direct link to the page.)

 

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AR Rahman, Life, Music

A most unexpected Rahman concert

The first, and only, AR Rahman concert I had been to was in Hyderabad, in 2003. It was the first time Rahman had ever toured, and expectations were high, the man himself had not sold out was at the top of his game, and I had all-access backstage passes. Since then, I’ve passed on every ARR concert that happened in the vicinity, partly because I could not really top the 2003 experience, and partly because there was not really anything new happening in any of the concerts – you could make out parts being badly lip-synched, there would be the mandatory Sivamani jam, garish background dancers, and a bunch of crowd-pleasing songs. Ho-hum.

But when Sasi told me about Rahman playing at the Hollywood Bowl in July, I was struck with that Rahmantic yearning again. And that’s how we landed up there this Sunday, with a bottle of wine, bags of popcorn, and a cumulative high after listening to ‘Jiya Se Jiya’ in the car. (the Hollywood Bowl allows you to bring your own food in, which was a pleasant surprise) As expected, the place was desi-ville, right from the parking lot to the crowded stands. (Which also meant there was a great deal of queue-bumping. Or queue-nonexistence.) A bhangra group, apparently a bunch of SoCal dancers called the Sher Foundation were performing at the entrance and inviting passers-by to join in, leading to much exhibition of left feet.

The concert began with a performance by Rhythms of Rajasthan, a folk singing troupe. Nobody really paid them much attention, people were still streaming in, it was not dark enough to see the screens, and there were no crunchy beats to make you get up and dance, yo. Karsh Kale was up next. He played an excellent 45-minute set, with some great singers joining him onstage, as well as a female violinist named Lili Haydn, who owned. Salim Merchant came onstage for a bit, jamming to his song ‘Shukran Allah’ from Kurbaan with Kale and his crew. Overall, a fantastic performance, and I was primed for the evening. But no ARR in sight, instead Sher Foundation and something called Bollywood Step Dance came onstage and did what every wannabe on every talent show on every TV channel does – dance to Bollywood songs. Omkara, Jab We Met, facepalm. Thankfully, this did not last too long.

The announcer came on stage, did his usual Rahman spiel. Mispronounced name, check. Slumdog Millionaire mention, check. Audience going wild, check. Random drunk Tamil dude screaming ‘thalaivar’ over and over again, check. Conductor Matt Dunkley walked in. The opening sequence to Enthiran played on the giant screen, and the crowd roared as Robonikanth sauntered into view. The music began to play, slowly building, and the choir launched into ‘Arima Arima’. But whoa, it was a version much different from the one on the soundtrack. I believe the precise moment I began to gape with disbelief was when ‘Arima’ became a rearranged ‘Puthiya Manithan’ Because this was good, guys. This was not stick-to-the-crowd-pleasers Rahman I was expecting. The  Spirit of Unity tour in 2003 had the bombastic ‘Oruvan Oruvan’ from Muthu opening every show. The overture to that song is a magnificent orchestral piece that was tweaked a little, so that the meaty beats and SPB’s robust vocals that lead to the song became a bubbly hymn of anticipation, driving fanboys like yours truly delirious with happiness. This version of Enthiran evoked something quite like that. But I expected the singers to emerge any minute, destroying those few minutes of sonic adventurism that we were witnessing. I was wrong.

Rahman came onstage, talked a bit about how happy he was to be there. Said something funny about this not being a ‘rockstar event’. A brief speech about Roja, and he walked away. The orchestra struck up again, with a delicate reinterpretation of ‘Kaadhal Rojave’, with ARR regular Naveen on the solo flute. It was at this point I realized this was going to be much, much more than a regular concert.

Chances were high that something like this would suck. You know why? Because orchestral reinterpretations fall into two categories – gimmicky or wannabe. An outfit like Apocalyptica, once the novelty of hearing METALLICA-ON-CELLO-WOO-HOO wears off, is just a bunch of celloists scraping on their instruments as hard as possible to make them sound like badass Les Pauls. Off the top of my head, the only orchestral version I loved whole-heartedly, without coming back to it some time later and going ‘wha-huh, I enjoyed that?’ was Jon Lord’s Concerto For Group And Orchestra.  And please don’t say S&M. No, it does not hold up. Matt Dunkley, who was the conductor and arranger for the concert, has apparently worked with ARR since

The choice of songs was superb. These were the underrated gems, the pieces that do not make it to your top 10 ARR lists. ‘Ayo Re Sakhi’ from Water, (which was nearly ruined by the female vocalist, a lady named Amrita. I will get to her in a minute) , pieces from Couples Retreat and 127 Hours.  ‘Mausam & Escape’ from Slumdog Millionaire was a frenzied piano/sitar duet, with sitarist Asad Khan joining Rahman on the keys, and a very unexpected choice for that soundtrack. The predictable inclusions – the theme from Warriors of Heaven and Earth and ‘Once Upon A Time in India’ from Lagaan, the Bombay theme. The most unpredictable one was a suite from The Rising, otherwise known as Mangal Pandey. I have to admit that the piece made me itch to go and revisit the OST, though I am not courageous enough to consider watching the film again. (Shudder!)

The one piece I could not recognize at all was ‘Changing Seasons’. Was it from Raavan? I have absolutely no clue, because my post-2009 ARRfu is weak. I do not remember seeing it anywhere before, even on promos.

The low points –

  • Almost no connection between the content of the video clips and the piece being conducted at the moment. Imagine watching an action sequence with a romantic theme playing in the background, and you will understand what I mean.
  • The multiple anti-British themes (and their corresponding videos) got a little tedious. Thankfully, no pieces from Bose: The Forgotten Hero.
  • The choice of Jai Ho’ as the closing song. While I get it, it’s the most recognized Rahman song in Hollywoodland, familiar enough for even the random drunk woman sitting next to me to wake up and cheer. But you have a Philharmonic orchestra and start off with programmed beats and a bunch of under-trained vocalists to substitute for Sukhwinder Singh’s power-packed vocals. Seriously?
  • The terrible, terrible female vocalist, who had no business sharing a stage with the Man, or anywhere near a microphone. She sounded nervous at first, a little out of breath, when singing the Water song, but one can only forgive so much. Her voice was grating enough to suck away all the joy out of ‘Jai Ho’. I missed you, Tanvi Shah. You may be the only Indian woman who can say ‘Salut, baila baila!’ without making me giggle.

And now to wait for an official CD release.

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AR Rahman, Music

Two songs

Two songs by two of my favourite Indian composers –  AR Rahman’s ‘Dilli 6’, from the movie of the same name was released in 2009 and Amit Trivedi’s ‘Dilli’, from No One Killed Jessica came out last month. I haven’t heard the first in about a year, due to a self-imposed hiatus. The other’s been on my playlist the past few days. Both songs are written and composed around the same city – Delhi. (d-uh!) Both of them feature a melange of vibrant sounds that one would not really associate with the idea of a song about the capital of India. Rahman goes in for a chill-out/club-music vibe (French lyrics! an analog synth groove!), while Trivedi layers his track with screaming distortion guitars that occasionally meander into Indian classical/prog-rock territory.

Female voices begin each song. Tanvi Shah’s velvet vocals, heavily processed, introduce us to ‘Dilli 6’. Her inflection of the words has a distinct accent, “yeh Dilli” comes out as ‘E Delhi’. The languorous vibe of the song is broken by Benny Dayal and Blaaze’s chanting, and from then on, the song gives us a series of pleasant musical surprises – syncopated rap in French, a very effective use of the beat and a scratchy fill that punctuates key phrases.

‘Dilli 6’ is about the city, or rather, an introduction to the city. Come hither, the city is great. ‘Bas ishq mohabbat pyaar.’ Right, the city is just perfect for the lover, for the artist, it embraces you tight and scolds you soundly. But obviously, if you are practical enough, you should make sure you have your seat-belts fastened, there is enough cash in your wallet and the air-conditioner is switched on.

‘Dilli’ is from the point of view of one who lives in Delhi. Sure, he loves the city, but it’s love-tinged-with-irony, the casual cruelty reserved for the lover without whom you cannot do with, but resent her presence and her effect on you all the same. ‘Mera kaat kalejaa Dilli, mui Dilli le gayi’  – ‘it has cut my liver out, Delhi has’ goes the main refrain. Trivedi’s musical aesthetic, as I have noted before, seeks to bring out a raw scruffiness that is usually missing from mainstream Indian cinema, and ‘Dilli’, head-banger of a song though it may be, is a perfect example of this. It aims for the gut. From the scraping, echoey intro guitar loop that warns you of yet another day in a city that sucks the blood out of you, the song, once it starts, is breathless – the female voice ( Aditi Singh Sharma, a Trivedi regular) rat-a-tats the word ‘Dilli’, the drums and the male voices – Toshi Raina and Shriram Iyer sing the bulk of the song in unison. All three singers get their Delhi vibe just right – no pan-Indian song, this one.

On a side, there is this new wave of Delhi-centric movies that get the city. I am not really sure I am qualified enough to say this myself – I have passed through Delhi every now and then, and all my interactions have been through the filter of close friends. Remember Sarfarosh and Dil Se, which were  set in the city? The only time you recognized Delhi as an entity was the morning shots in the fog at Connaught Place. Not so the post-Dibakar Bannerjee era, where the city becomes real – its inhabitants are the inhabitants of the capital, speaking the vernacular, not pretenders from Film City. Which reminds me – go watch Band Baaja Baarat. It has its flaws, but I had fun. End aside.

I could be wrong – but is the Dilli in the Rahman song addressed as a male (I know most of the lyrics just refer to it as a city, but the lines ‘badaa kaske gale lagaata hai’ personify it, I thought), while the one in Trivedi’s song is the bitch-from-hell lover?

Rahman’s song has an epic build-up moment. At a point, as the male voices chant the ‘yeh Delhi hai’ refrain, the bassline throbs, Rahman makes his way through ear-friendly chords,  heavily-processed French horns and timpanis pronounce euphoria and grandeur. No such moments in Trivedi’s composition – the only ear-friendly portion comes when all three voices come together in magnificent harmony.

I played ‘Dilli 6’ again just now, and I notice that this song, as well, has a subtly recurring guitar riff. Nice.

All that said, I am really impressed by the way Trivedi’s been carving his own path, refusing to stick to a single style – for all my talk of his rawness, the soundtrack of Aisha was the only IFM soundtrack that has been consistently on the iPod all year, and the polish of it gives me a quick kick to the rear my trying-to-find-patterns inner critic. Right now, I am fixated on ‘Shaam’, the under-rated song of the album, shot in the film in a style that fits its stoner roots. I have not heard Udaan properly yet, (and haven’t seen the film, either) apparently No One Killed Jessica has usurped its place on the Trivedi queue.

Read: Aadisht’s lovely examination and deconstruction of what makes the Dilli 6 song tick, where I am also mentioned.

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AR Rahman, Music

Rahman 2 Dot Oh

Indian music changed in 1992.

It’s fairly obvious that every musical milestone since that year has had one man’s shadow looming large over it. From the sheer de-genrification of film music; the price of audio cassettes – it was Rahman’s Rangeela that pushed the price point to Rs 30, and then Hindustani to 32, and so on; the prominent display of the music director’s credentials in the publicity stills for films; a new generation of fresh, unconventional voices; an infusion of musical trends that were several levels above copying the latest Billboard Top 20 hit; even the move from cassettes to audio CDs, A.R. Rahman and his music has influenced Indian Film Music like no one before him. A lot of people would disagree – hey, individual opinion and all that – but if your ears cannot detect the difference between pre-Rahman film music and what came after Roja, our discussion is pretty much moot.

Over the years, Rahman’s contemporaries have picked up and internalized the superficial aspects of his musicmanship – the use of technology to layer sounds and to smoothen the harsh edges of any voice or instrument, the melding of a Western ensemble with a traditional lead instrument, employing sequenced bass and drumlines. The older guys – Anu Malik, Nadeem-Shravan ( when they were still around), Jatin-Lalit –  they quickly came up to speed with the changing aural taste of the populace, employing the help of resident techmeisters – Tabun Sutradhar, Ranjit Barot et al- to polish their tunes and add that extra vim to their otherwise humdrum compositions. The new guard that followed – Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Pritam, Harris Jeyaraj – took the template that Rahman had perfected over the decade, and applied it everywhere. What this has wrought is – sometimes, these people can out-Rahman Rahman, using just the right kind of orchestral flourishes with saccharine-sweet tunes, perfectly blending east and west into a musical muesli. Music that is gelatineous, easily-digestible; tunes that run through your brain, find its pleasure centers, hit the right neurological spots; songs that exist for the few weeks they run on the telly, and are then vaporized by the next aural offering on the air. They are, and then they aren’t.

So that brings me to the question that’s been bothering me for quite sometime – what’s next?

Rahman’s obsession with aural perfection continues, his newer soundtracks going boldly where no Indian composer has gone before. On a good day, ARR’s musical skill is unparalleled, his proficiency at his craft, the way he is attuned to an evolutionary sound that must meet a particular standard he has set for himself – all of these are beyond doubt or question. The man has proved himself over and over again all these years, and it would nearly be criminal to assume that his well of creativity is about to dry up anytime in the future. But this unrelenting obsession with crystal-clear sound – what does it lead to? What will a film song sound like in ten years?

In some ways, the fall-out of the Rahman Age of Music is the antiseptic nature of the musical package we hear around us. I hear the sheen of the voices, the precise cutoff of the violins, the perfectly looped beats, the synthetised warmth of the pads embellishing the music with pleasant chord progressions in the background. An example – listen to the title track of Rang De Basanti, where Daler Mahendi’s robust earthy voice is jostled playfully by Chitra’s tinkly pitch, punctuated with a multitude of Punjabi-sounding “aha”s. But listen again, a little carefully. The beat of the dhol is incessant, yet non-intrusive. The notes on the thumbi are flawless. The pads, when they come in, round off the song excellently.The song is bubbly, it makes you want to dance, but it’s manufactured in such a way that it evokes the spontaneity of a Max Martin number. Martin, for the uninitiated, is a Swedish music producer who provided the trademark sound for a number of Britney/Backstreet Boys/NSync albums in the early nineties.

One of the Ramones ( just went and checked, it was Tommy, the drummer) once made a comment in an interview about how, following the musical innovations of the 60s, the scene was inundated with a number of wannabe Jimi Hendrixes, none of whom could match up to the legend. What they ended up with was endless guitar solos – and punk rock came out as a reaction to that, the need to have pure, stripped-down version of rock n’ roll. This new music did not just distance itself from the Hendrix-Beatles-school of virtuoso guitar-and-word-play, it pissed all over it and created something completely new.

The more I think about it, the more I see Amit Trivedi, member of a little-known band called Om and a new entrant to the Indian film music scene as the next logical progression of Indian film music. He’s just two films old, but those two – and a couple of stray songs in private albums here and there – are enough for me to arrive at that conclusion. The first time I noticed Amit Trivedi’s music – without knowing it was by him – was when I heard a song sung by Indian Idol-winner Abhijit Sawant. Sawant had previously released a generic, yawn-inducing album as part of his Sony/BMG contract, and when the trancey Junoon’ began to play on TV, it was like hearing a different person altogether. There was a husky undertone to his voice, and a feel hard to describe in words – like the guy knew how good the composition was, and was giving it a personality that it deserved. The song made use of the distortion guitar as a new-agey, post-rock-flavored instrument; the 4/4 beat, played on a classic drum-kit, was almost classic rock n’ roll, and the intoxicating, rhythmic lyrics pushed it into squarely into the genre we call Sufi rock. I assumed that the composer was Mithoon, an up-and-coming composer specializing in importing Pakistani music into the Bhatt camp by the barrel, and almost concluded that it was another of those imports.

A friend went and watched Aamir, a film that ran for a long time in local theatres, getting good crowds and favorable press. To my surprise, she went to Music World during lunch the next day, and bought the soundtrack. “That good?”, I asked, and borrowed it off her after she ripped the music to her laptop. After forgetting all about it for a few weeks, I finally took the CD out of my bag and gave it a listen. And another. Brilliant, unconventional songs. Voices rawer than sushi in an authentic Japanese restaurant. ( I suck at analogies, thank you ) That’s when I was first astounded by Amit Trivedi and his musical choices. ‘Haara’ and ‘Chakkar Ghumyo’ are songs that Trivedi sang himself, in a voice that, I shit you not, oozes with unselfconscious chutzpah. Make of that what you will. I saw the film, my respect-o-meter went all the way up to eleven. The slightly irritating tics in the music – like a particular drum riff in the song ‘Haara’ that got on my nerves – actually made sense in the way they were introduced and used in the songs in the context of the visuals.  – ”Haara’ ended up giving me the goosebumps. Obviously, the low-budget trappings of Aamir ensured that both the film and its music were little-known gems of 2008.

Obviously, it’s the eighteen-track genre-mashup called Dev D that has brought Amit Trivedi to the forefront of the music scene, a universe removed from composers churning out disposable Soni-mahiya pap. Dev D has its own share of Punjabi numbers, but it’s a far cry from the pop bhangra that tries to pass off as the real thing in film music. Trivedi has Labh Janjua, a singer primarily known for the chartbusting Mundian Toh Bachke Rahe and a number of stray songs in Hindi films in 2007-08, sing a rollicking bhangra number (‘Hikknaal’ ) and a song (‘Mahi Mennu’) that has two versions – a primarily vocal track, and the other a raucuous beatfest that throbs with a primal energy of its own. Shilpa Rao’s dulcet vocals glide over ‘Dhol Yaara Dhol’ ( the song apparently got Trivedi his gig with Anurag Kashyap, who in turn introduced him to Rajkumar Gupta, the director of Aamir ), and a multitude of unknown voices – Aditi Singh Sharma, Toshi, Joi, Anusha Mani – proceed to shower your aural senses with a plethora of musical wonders. Trivedi and his voice take centre-stage in some of the most entertaining songs I’ve heard in a long time – ‘Duniya’, ‘Aankh Micholi’, ‘Saali Khushi’ and ‘Nayan Tarse’ are not songs that hit your pleasure-centers immediately. They sound and feel rough, woven out of homespun cloth; the very antithesis of your typical Rahman song that evokes satin and velvety down. The beginning of ‘Duniya’ in particular is a complete assault on your average film-music mind, where Trivedi mixes the sound of an accordian ( or is that the much-maligned harmonium?) with a caterwauling chorus. The drums kick in with the frenzy of a demented 12-year old, tripped up on crystal meth. Trivedi layers his voice over and over in his own songs,  adding interesting – often debauched – counterpoints to the lines he spits out. (Note for instance, how the second disembodied voice says “Zindagi” after every line in ‘Aankh Micholi’, almost as if it’s struggling to find the correct scale to latch on to, and manages to, but just barely) Bereft of slickness, artificial sweeteners, or familiar musical cues. Raw.

It’s not as if Trivedi’s music is completely rough and earthy, far from it. The two Dev-Chanda themes, one a whistling melody backed by delicate piano tinkles, the other a playful scat with the male and female vocalists complementing each other, as a mandolin trills in the background – are examples of how ethereal the soundtrack becomes at times. The first of these themes beautifully segues into ‘Dil Mein Jaagi’ by Anusha Mani, with shades of orchestral music and the opera. Much has already been said about the two versions of the song with possibly the catchiest title of the decade, and everybody and his uncle has seen and heard the surreally-shot ‘Pardesi’. The one track that hits the pleasure centers from the first second is Shruti Pathak’s ‘Paayaliya’, its vocal percussion gelling splendidly with the veena, the song a brilliant blend of east and west.

With two films down, both with directors who seem to know exactly what they want, it’s probably too early to make a sweeping statement about Amit Trivedi’s career. So far he’s been in his comfort zone, working in close collaboration with lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, experimenting with fresh voices, doing his own thing. It’ll be interesting to see how his style  – if you can call it that, at this stage – evolves with his subsequent offerings. Will he sustain the manic energy in his sophomore album? A lot depends on the films he signs – I can see him carve a niche for himself with gonzo directors like Kashyap. A true test would be a Yashraj Productions film, a cinematic house that has reduced S-E-L, Vishal-Shekhar and Salim-Sulaiman to interchangeable drones.The Next Big Thing in Indian Film Music? Rahman 2.0? Only time will tell. He’s the only composer after AR Rahman who’s excited me so much ( Vishal Bharadwaj, technically, is not just a composer) and hopefully I’ll be following his career with interest in the years to come.

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AR Rahman, Comics, Mixtapes, Movies, Music

Of movies, blankets and mixtapes.

What really annoyed me after watcing Darna Zaroori Hai is the knowledge that RGV’s scriptwriters are so starved of scary ideas. Between this movie and its precursor, there have been five storylines involving cars on lonely roads. Hey, I know lonely roads are scary, and I understand that you guys drive to Khandala every other weekend and it’s a long frigging lonely drive, but get off it already. My point is, if you want to make a horror movie, you need to understand horror. Are you being scared by what you just wrote and translated to screen? I think you need to go out a little more, read a lot, watch a bit of Argento and Fulci and Hitchcock and Park Chan-Wook. And then maybe you will get out of this loser-level walk-up-behind-me-and-say-boo level of scriptwriting. And someone needs to take a jackhammer to Amar Mohile’s keyboards, there, that’s a horror story for you guys – loony music critic ends up with a jackhammer because the music had subliminal messages in it.

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Sasi was here for all of half a day, and just because I was dying to share Blankets with someone, asked him to borrow it off me and read it in the next couple of days. I loved that book. Once upon a time, I totally hated reading autobiographies, but it’s books like Blankets that renew my faith in the fact that people can talk about themselves without laying it on too thick. The book is beautiful, romantic without being cheesy, graceful without being highbrow, poetic without being inaccessible. One of the few books this year ( Yes, I know the year isn’t even half-over yet, but I know that this statement is true, period) that I read in one sitting. And the artwork, oh my goodness, what I wouldn’t do to get ONE PAGE of Craig Thompson’s pencilled art. I had read that he was inspired not by other comic-book artists ( though there were definite Will Eisner influences on the storytelling style), but by post-Impressionist painters like Pissarro, Modigliani and Matisse, and his influences show themselves in flowing panels, full-page thoughtscapes that give me goosepimples as I read the book.

(So what is Blankets? It’s a graphic novel, by this gentleman named Craig Thompson, an autobiographical retelling of his childhood, his relationship with his brother Phil, and his first love, a girl named Raina who he meets at Christian winter camp. He spends two weeks at Raina’s place, and a greater part of the book deals with these two weeks and their repercussions on Craig’s life. GRAAAH, I am bad at describing things like this, just go and read the Wikipedia entry already, huh?)

This would perhaps be the most beautiful book you won’t read in your lifetime, if you are in India. The steep price-tag (29.95$) ensures that even if it’s imported, the price will be high enough to dissuade people from buying it. Plus, yeah, no scanned versions available yet. It would be tough to scan this without destroying the book, it’s 600 pages. So don’t ask.

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I made a mix-mp3 collection, again, part of the weekend project. I call it my Ultimate Though Slightly Biased Feel-Good AR Rahman Mix. Slightly biased because these aren’t songs that have been dubbed (and hence not part of the “national consciousness”, so no Bombay, Roja, Rangeela, Dil Se – you hear?) or are easily associated with ARR Hits package – these are the gems that lie in dormant brain-cells, songs that give me a high everytime I hear them because I have not been saturated by them at any point of time in my life. Each of them has a story, of course, and maybe someday I might get around to wearing off your collective ears with them, but for now, the songs will do. 14 tracks in one zip-file, meant to be listened to in the order in which they are arranged.

You can download the zip right here.

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