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Monday, 25 May 2015

Karnataka - US Review

Album Review: Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels

There are a select group of musicians in rock and metal bands who don't see themselves merely as songwriters, but instead envision themselves as composers on a grander stage, the kind of musicians who write epic strokes of genius, not just little songs. These are the albums that are slathered with massive choirs and armies of classical instruments, turning rock into an electric symphony. What they seldom realize is that they are not true composers, and their insistence on going beyond the normal scope of their genre is a self-inflicted wound, because they are marketing their grand visions to an audience that still wants plenty of conventional thinking. The best of these rock composers understands this, and manages to walk the fine line between rock and classical so that both sides feel happy with the result. It's difficult to pull off, but Karnataka has tried to do it with their massive new album, "Secrets Of Angels".
The album opens with the dramatic strings of "Road To Cairo", where the non-metal instrumentation is used to startling effect. Those notes bend the melody in a way guitars can't, and invoke a feeling rock bands can't otherwise get. The guitars bring some Egyptian feel into the riffs, but it's the strings that carry the weight of the instrumentation, slashing across the rock motifs in a way that shows they are more than mere window-dressing tacked on to a rock song, they are integral parts of the composition. As interesting as that is, what makes the song are the lush, warm melodies sung by Hayley Griffiths, who turns the song into a melodic monster. Just when you think a solid chorus has come and gone, the song builds even further into the true chorus. It's a melodic masterclass in songwriting, and a phenomenal opening statement.

"Because Of You" follows that formula, stabbing the composition with bursts of menacing strings, which heighten the tension with the smooth melodies that power the chorus. Two songs in, and the album feels like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night, with melodies that wrap around you and make you forget about everything else going on. Listening to the soft, cooing, multi-tracked harmonies in "Poison Ivy" is a thing of beauty. It's difficult to wrap dramatic rock and stirring orchestrations around such lively melodies, but Karnataka shows a deft skill in being able to balance all facets of their music.

"Forbidden Dreams" feels a bit like a play for a single, with a more driving beat, but that doesn't mean it's any less impressive. When the hook hits, it hits hard. It doesn't take long for the song to work its way into your head. And when the bridge slows things up, there's a hint of Broadway that comes through that I find endearing, because it plays right into the dramatic swell of the music.

Karnataka does a great job of maintaining the diversity of the album, without stepping away from their core sound. There are the songs that are more metallic, and moments even within them that are pure 80s pop, like the chorus in "Borderline". These little shifts in the tone are essential to making sure the record doesn't get bogged down in an hour's worth of identical music. Every song here has something different to offer, and that makes it a well-rounded listen. And even if it wasn't, the chorus of "Fairytale Lies" is so sticky and stunning that it makes any flaws inconsequential.

The centerpiece of the album is the twenty minute title track, an epic slice of progressive metal that manages to utilize its running time to put all of the band's influences into a single song. As you'll find in almost any song of this length, there are lengthy instrumental passages, but rather than feel indulgent, they are used to break the song up into smaller sections, with each one retaining the band's core commitment to making irresistibly melodic music. Sure, it could easily be a few minutes shorter, but the song is always engaging enough to not overstay its welcome.

Of course, there is an inevitable comparison I don't want to make, but with the proximity of the releases, it's hard not to think about "Secrets Of Angels" in the same breath as Nightwish's latest opus. Both are highly dramatic, orchestrated pieces of metal that feature female singers and end with twenty minute epics. That, however, is where the comparisons end. The only reason I'm letting myself indulge this line of thought is because Karnataka absolutely blows Nightwish out of the water. They won't get nearly the attention or acclaim as the bullies on the block, but in every respect Karnataka has made the better record. It's warmer, more detailed, and the songwriting is flat-out better all around. Judging just by these records, Karnataka is the band that should be headlining festivals.

It should go without saying, at this point, that my opinion of "Secrets Of Angels" is reverent. It takes something special to get me to love this kind of music, because I've never been a big fan of massive orchestrations being applied to my metal, nor female singers with a heavy dose of classical training. What Karnataka has done here is flip my own conceptions upside-down, because this is an album I shouldn't love nearly as much as I do. "Secrets Of Angels" is not just a great album, it's as perfect an example of dramatic, orchestrated metal as I can ever imagine. I was floored by this record.


Secrets of Angels
CD - £9.99

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