Karma's return: A critique without guns or substances - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #60

[Note- This be a companion piece to my first, high-priase Karma to Burn article so don't read one without reading the other, or I'll know]

Karma to Burn have just received rapturous praise as only this blog can deliver, a manic essay written at half five in the morning, chiefly concerned with their two middle albums, the greats Wild Wonderful Purgatory and Almost Heathen. Today I change tack and talk about why V as a Karma to Burn album is simultaneously one of the best albums of 2011, and one of the worst albums of all time. I am pretty sober (as sober as I can get without the angst becoming endemic) and I’m going to slice and dice it as I see fit and try to explain why I love V by Karma to Burn, and why it signifies the end of one of my favourite bands. Karma to Burn have had two flawless albums, which is two more than most bands, but I can’t help feeling, even through V that they could have done so much more. These cats set up a quality well, and could dip and album-sized bucket down into that free flowing stream of quality any time they saw fit.

We’ll start, perversely, at the end with the Never Say Die cover. Sabbath have never loomed large behind Karma to Burn (I don’t care if they’re listed as a reference, Karma to Burn only played the music, I listened to it so I know more than them) so the cover was at worst ill-judged and at best just unsatisfactorilly drew the album to a close. Karma to Burn have traditionally been an instrumental rock group with just the three trypitics of axe, bass and skins to put together their songs. With the addition of vocals the whole thing begins to fall apart, point starts to come into the songs, direction, intention, invention and intelligence and that isn’t what Karma to Burn was ever about. The grooves exist outside of rationality, they are fleeting hedonistic fucks without follow-up or emotion, an all-night one-night stand never to be repeated. Never Say Die is also a pretty terrible cover, as singer Daniel Davies doesn’t have the pipes or the uniqueness to compete with Ozzy, and the cover is just too similar to the Sabbath classic (which isn’t that good anyway). The point of a cover song is the same as re-writing an essay stolen from a classmate. Too many similarities will reveal you were working from a cheat-sheet. If your cover is the same why should I bother drinking at your alter? A great cover song ought to have felt like Karma to Burn mercillesly drunkenly trashing Ozzy’s house, so that it is still Ozzy’s house but their muddy boot prints are all over everything and all the paintings are askew. This is a problem Karma to Burn have hit before, their cover of Twenty-Four Hours by Joy Division from their self-titled debut was the same story, it added nothing to the cult of the song and served only to pad out the playtime. The song plays homage to the Sabbath hit and that just won’t do. Respectful is not a word I wanna be using about Karma to Burn.

The other two original vocal songs work far better. Karma to Burn have only ever done one good song including vocals, and it was Two Times with John Garcia. It worked because they showed him no mercy or respect. The whole deal had a feeling that they hadn’t even given him a rehersal, maybe he wasn’t even there voluntarily. Warbling behind the wall of noise suited both his voice and the band’s attitude. It was exactly the kind of no-holds-barred guitar-drums-bass workout with John Garcia spotting on some of the bigger lifts but largely ignored, I think they spat on him if he got too uppety. Here, the vocalist gets a free ride, it even seems like the songs were written with vocals in mind if you can warp your consciousness round that one. There is a little bit of deference to rock tradition. Both Cynics and Jimmy D are at least pretty solid rock songs, but that’s just the problem. They’re pretty excellent rock songs with solid beats and memorable guitar work and they’re catchy. But they aren’t Karma to Burn. Karma to Burn is wild gun-waving at five am ripped out of your head on whatever esoteric drug floated to the top of the cocktail at that particular moment. It ought to defy understanding or explanation at the most basic levels because it ought to be so far outside rock music. This isn’t.

The instrumentals on the album tell a similar sobering story. Between the revamped frets, the altered guitar sound and the money draped on everything, Karma to Burn have never sounded better, and never felt worse. The riffs become more experimental, there is more going on in each moment than in previous Karma to Burn records. Previously the instrumentals were the sort of riffs dreamed up by large middle ages blacksmiths sons, none too bright but stronger than anyone else. Thudding muscular riffs were unstoppably marching across undulating dunes of bass and peppered with rough flurries of drums on the wind. Now they are more sharp, more sprightly, if anything, better. Long explorations that owe more to Mahvishnu Orchestra than those dusky empty desert riffs of the blues. I know nothing of musical theory, but I would suspect the riffs on V are more technically proficient, with an eye to composition they are more aesthetically pleasing, use of mid-tones or resolution of harmonies. And that I think, is the handle, V is worse becasue it is better.

V was a solid rock and roll album, but a shameful and heartbreaking addition to the discography of a band who seemed to be endlessly on the up. By making the album better in every way they could, they have made it worse in the only way that matters. It has been almost a year since I’ve been able to come to terms with Karma to Burn, but I felt after the ringing endorsement I gave them last time, I ought to alert you to the high quality and spiritual zombification of their latter catalogue. Still better than 90% of the bilge that staggers off the big label production line and into our record stores, mind.

Written under duress by Steven.

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