Karnataka @ The Robin, Bilston – Sunday 8th March 2015

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Review By Paul Quinton, photos by Russ Powney

Once upon a time, the original line-up of Karnataka recorded what became one of my all-time favourite albums. The Storm was an atmospheric, almost ethereal record, packed with great songs, fine playing and smart, emotionally charged lyrics. It made a deep impression on me from the moment I heard the opening track, ‘Heaven Can Wait’, which is still one of the 8 songs I’d take to that mythical desert island. Since then, the band have undergone several line-up changes, leaving only bassist and band leader Ian Jones from the original line-up, and in recent years have hinted at a leaning to a heavier, almost symphonic rock direction. All of which made the prospect of seeing the latest line-up touring their brand new album Secrets Of Angels, their first since 2010’s The Gathering Light, pretty intriguing.

Karnataka
Karnataka

With this also being the band’s first gig at the Robin since 2012, the gig drew a decent crowd, even if many would not have heard the new album, as the initial, subscriber copies were, apparently, still in the post. Bang on the advertised start time of 8.45, the intro tape began, a Middle Eastern tinged piece, which led nicely into the opening song ‘Road To Cairo’, the first of the new songs. First impression was how big the sound was, not just in the volume, but in how the band were playing, in fact singer Hayley Griffiths was having trouble making herself heard over the band in the first few minutes of the show. The band had structured the set so that they played three songs from the original line up during the opening half, before devoting the second half almost exclusively to the new album. The first of the older songs was ‘Talk to Me’, which the band had never recorded, but had been played live and was included on the live album Strange Behaviour. Compared to the original, this was so beefed up, it might well have been a different song, and this set the tone for the back catalogue songs, each played in an almost symphonic rock style, often changing the mood of the whole song. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was a little startling if you’d been familiar with the originals.

Karnataka
Karnataka

There were times when this didn’t work, though, ‘The Right Time’ plodded rather than brooded, and the new song included in the set at this point, ‘Borderline’ turned out to be a straightforward and comparatively simplistic melodic hard rock song, and not a great one at that. The highlight of the original line-up’s last studio album, the title track ‘Delicate Flame of Desire’, was much better served, the beauty of the original melody shining through, before the title track of The Gathering Light ended a disconcerting first set. It had been good to hear the older songs, and some of the new material sounded good on first hearing, but it has to be said that the band hadn’t put in a scintillating performance so far. That isn’t to criticise Hayley Griffiths, though, she’s really developed in the role of fronting the band, reining in a lot of her more theatrical flourishes, which suited both the venue and the music much better than on previous occasions.

After a 25 minute interval, proceedings resumed, and the rumours about the band moving toward Nightwish territory turned out to well-founded. The opening song of the second half, ‘Poison Ivy’, was possibly the heaviest thing I’ve ever seen the band do, and the sound of Hayley Griffiths moving effortlessly and almost instantaneously from a normal singing voice to a soprano, especially in the climax to the song, was startling. Second song, ‘Fairytale Lies’, was more of a ballad, with an orchestral backing track, and an excellent, powerful chorus. All this started the second half in fine fashion, and the momentum was kept up with the only ‘back catalogue’ song of this part of the show, ‘Your World’, from The Gathering Light. Moving away from symphonic metal, this number became a pretty good melodic rock song, whereas another new song, ‘Forbidden Dreams’, was toned down, with a merest hint of electronica, but ‘Because Of You’ turned the symphonic metal influence right back to maximum, with a thunderous riff and Hayley showing off her full vocal range. I will say, though, if you are going to explore this style of music, the guitars really need to be heavier, and have more presence, something that was missing for almost the whole of this gig.

Karnataka
Karnataka

The closing of the main set was the title track of the new album, a 20 minute piece, and in keeping with the number of times the word ‘Nightwish’ popped into my head over the previous half dozen songs, it began with a very Celtic influenced passage, featuring a backing track of Troy Donockley on pipes. This is not only a long piece by Karnataka’s standards, but to be honest, it did feel it at times. There are several parts and while it includes several different moods and styles, there are perhaps too many, as it didn’t really flow and seemed too fragmented to really hold the attention.

After that the band took an initial bow and returned for the single encore, another new song, ‘Feels Like Home’, clearly intended to be an arms in the air, lighter waving, sing-along ballad. Another decent song, but lacking the presence of some of the other new material, which summed up the gig as a whole, really. I was impressed when the band turned up the power, and these were easily the most memorable of the new songs, but these sat uncomfortably with the older songs and the less forceful newer ones. Good on this latest line up of the band for trying to forge their own identity, but I don’t how know how easy it will be to do and keep their long standing fans while gathering more along the way.

Setlist:
1. Road To Cairo
2. Talk To Me
3. The Right Time
4. Borderline
5. The Delicate Flame Of Desire
6. The Gathering Light
7. Poison Ivy
8. Fairytale Lies
9. Your World
10. Forbidden Dreams
11. Because Of You
12. Secrets Of Angels

Encore:
13. Feels Like Home

 

See more of Russ’ photos here